Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

The night before the inauguration, I mentioned to my mom that I'd be keeping my kids home to watch the swearing in, and to do inauguration-related learning activities. I was excited about the historical significance of the event, and thrilled that my kids were involved and aware and enthusiastic about learning more.

"It's so great, Mom," I said. "I don't want them to miss a minute of it. They even seem to get that it's a historical moment!"

"Because he's our first Arab-American president?" she said.

Oh, yes she did. Of course, being me, I took the bait.

Yes, he has Arabic family connections, I said--but so what? Why is that the important thing to emphasize? Because it's the TRUTH, she said. I care about the TRUTH. Don't YOU?

But why is that important? I asked her. Because no one ever mentions it, and it's the TRUTH, she said. I pointed out that Obama has written two memoirs, in which he has very openly and clearly talked about his family heritage, and in fact, one is called Dreams From my Father--but apparently she still thinks he's trying to hide something.

It just sounds like you're being disrespectful of him, and not really appreciating what an enormously important thing this is for our country. What, she said, that we now have an ARAB-American president? He's not black, why do they always say he's black? Arabs are not black!

He has dark skin, mom, I said. It's got to be so encouraging and hopeful for people who have darker skin to actually see someone become president who looks a little more like them--maybe it makes them feel a little more included, or a little more optimistic. He's not black, she repeated. Arabs are not black. He's not African-American; he's Arab-American. Why are they trying to hide the TRUTH?

Mom, I said. Seriously? He's very clearly not an old white guy, and that's one thing that's different. Of course my mother found that remark to be disrespectful, and I apologized.

"I'm not trying to be disrespectful," I said. "I'm pointing out the obvious--that he LOOKS different, and his background is different, and to me and many other people, he also SOUNDS different." Either way, it's historic and important--why would she want to be hostile and angry about it?

And she's not the only one. Another family member sent me an email the other day saying this:

Now that your man is in, I have to rib you a bit. An AP wire reported that US military planes attacked a group of Afghans and killed 15-16. The president of Afghanistan says they were all civilians. If the republicans were as vicious, stupid and arrogant as their democrat rivals they would be printing bumper stickers reading, "Obama Lied, People Died".

I don't get it. I understand that he didn't vote for Obama, and that he would probably never vote for a Democrat. That's fine. But to smear all democrats as "vicious, stupid and arrogant" is so over-the-top that it's not even possible to return to a civil disagreement. Or am I wrong? But I cannot not take the bait--even though I did not ask for this fight, and never initiate political conversations with my family because I always end up feeling beat up.

I suggested that if the 15-16 who died were civilians, then it is not a time for ribbing, but for mourning. And I also submitted that it's ridiculous to suggest that Democrats are more vicious, stupid and arrogant than Republicans, just because of their party affiliation. Both groups are comprised of sinners, and neither side can claim moral superiority.

I'd like him to be more supportive of our new president and not, like the mascot of the Right, Rush Limbaugh, hope that he fails. But barring that, couldn't we just agree to disagree, with civility, and not make everything a black and white moral issue?
Apparently not. He firmly stands by his assertion that the Dems are hateful and vicious, and he said, "You'd really have to reach to find anything close" on the Republican side. How can you even have a civil, constructive conversation with someone who makes party affiliation a moral issue?

Don't get me wrong. I do believe in black and white moral issues. I do believe there are absolutes. But even in absolutes, there can be civility and courtesy. There can be benefit of the doubt, and peacemaking. Maybe we all need a primer on what civility looks like in operational terms:

  • avoid broad-brush, inflammatory statements
  • use clear, specific and representative examples
  • don't assume that you know what your opponent believes or agrees with. Instead, ask, and listen.
  • be aware of how you are coming across. If you become aware that you have offended, take responsibility, and rephrase. Why? Because the relationship, or the person, is more valuable than the point you are making.
  • Show restraint, respect, and consideration in your words and actions.
I want to be a peacemaker. I want more people to strive to be peacemakers in the little things as well as in the big things. We can do this, friends. Try it today: when you encounter a situation in which someone is doing or saying something that offends you, or that you think is wrong, inaccurate, or inappropriate, try to respond in a civil, peace-making way. Let me know how it goes.

Now I gotta go scream at my kids because they're making too much noise and tearing through the house.


Dave Haynes said...

I agree with most of your points. And I have to say that it would be nice if most people did feel that way. However, you also fail to see, or acknowledge that when our former president was in office, most democrats did not feel that we should all work together and that "there can be civility and courtesy." This is illustrated by Slate magazines article "The Misunderestimated Man" or the website I realize that you don't say theses things, but when you get into a political discussion, you can't completely divorce yourself from what those who agree with you say. When you talk to friends who agree with your political stance, how many feel that all republicans are vicious, stupid liars? After the book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" came out, was there a lot of democrats calling for more civility? No they called for the author to run for the senate. I don't think you will hear republicans calling for ann coulter to run for anything. And I hope that when President Obama walks to the stage on his last day, there is no crowd singing "Na-Na, Hey-Hey, Goodbye" and booing his wife.

E. Peevie said...

Officer Haynes,

I totally agree with you--it goes both ways. It's horrible that people booed Laura Bush.

However, I do not agree with you that you can't divorce yourself from those who agree with what you say but who do so with incivility. In fact, I think civility calls for us to adamantly do so--for Republicans to come down hard on the incivility of Limbaugh and Coulter, and for Democrats to rebuke the incivility of Franken and Olbermann.

But thanks, as always, for checking in to The Green Room!

Boy George said...

E., I really feel for you in your dealings with family regarding politics. In my family, out of my parents, sibs, and me, I think my brother and I are the only Democrats. At lunch with my mom and sister during Christmas shopping, my sister and I were starting to argue about politics, and my mom pretty much tried to calm us down (not that it got all that heated, but it was as intense as it had ever been). My sister said something like "Well, I'm just afraid that Obama is going to start pushing for reparations for the descendants of slaves." Now where the h-e-double-toothpicks did she get something like THAT from? My answer was probably in something she said later, about loving to listen to Rush Limbaugh.

At any rate, this post is mainly to take issue with your mother saying that Barack Obama is not black, but is "Arab-American". According to what I've been able to find, Barack's father was from Kenya, which is an East African country that is not really considered part of the Arab world. And in case your mother is confusing "Arab" with "Muslim" (a seemingly common misconception), I would hope that most people would understand that Barack Obama is Christian. Not that it should matter! Okay, so Obama is Christian: so what? And if he DID happen to be Muslim: so what? He is, in fact, African-American (but almost all accepted definitions of the term): so what? But if he DID happen to be Arab-American: so what?

No one was trying to hide anything about Obama's identity. If anything, it sounds like probably some right-wing radio/TV blowhards were trying to deceive their audiences.

Boy George said...

How do you edit in here? I meant to say "BY almost all accepted definitions of the term" near the end of my second paragraph...

Anonymous said...

Just for fun. did you know that Pres. Obama is also Irish!!!??? Check out this music video on youtube:
(copy and paste this link).
(Just catching up on my Greenroom reading.)

E. Peevie said...

I have seen that before! Hilarious. I'm glad you're catching up on your Green Room reading.