Most of us would agree that this has been the dirtiest, nastiest presidential campaign in our lifetimes. One candidate has lied, evaded, and avoided continuously, and presents a clear and present danger to our nation, while the other has demonstrated...an inability to manage her email communication very well. Clearly, there are no good choices here. ; )
At the same time, I've noticed a recent spate of seemingly well-intentioned social media posts imploring all of us to respond to this toxic election cycle with increased levels of civility, compassion, and respect. It's hard to find fault with this request, which is right up there with "baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie" when it comes to Americana-hued memes. Who in the world could object to such a reasonable, compassionate request?
Well...me, for one.
While I have all kinds of admiration for many of those who post these requests, and believe they are honorable, thoughtful, and well-meaning individuals who are -- like many of us -- tired and disgusted with the level of rhetoric that has poisoned our national discourse, there is a subtle aroma of "white-washing," tinged with a soupçon of false equivalence unmistakably imbuing these memes. As if we all just started being nicer, or kinder, all of this nastiness would just go away.
Except we aren't talking about policy disagreements, or legitimate differences of opinion on how certain economic goals could best be achieved, or how to approach immigration reform. If that were the case, as has been true in virtually all previous campaigns, then I would be among the first to get in line behind these demands for better behavior and more elevated dialogue.
But it's not the case. For the first time in our memory we are witnessing a political campaign in which notions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamaphobia are not just being hinted at, but are being openly and overtly spoken about, appear as campaign ads, and used to incite and inflame a candidate's supporters. This sort of reprehensible behavior by the nominee of a major American political party is unprecedented, and has been condemned by many Republicans as well as most Democrats and Independents.
The truth is that respect and tolerance are not gifts to be uncritically bestowed upon persons or movements without careful consideration. They are values and virtues to be earned through our words, actions and behaviors. They are hard won, not given away. And they must be deserved, based on one's record over time.
When we are asked to show "tolerance" for a candidate who has bragged about his lack of respect for women and who has admitted to committing acts of sexual assault, what sort of behavior are we truly being asked to tolerate?
When we are asked to show "respect" for party officials like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell who have publicly condemned their party's nominee for his disrespectful and dismissive attitudes and beliefs about women, only to then support, endorse, and vote for this nominee, what sort of dishonesty are we truly being asked to respect?
When we are asked to show "tolerance" for a candidate who has characterized our urban centers as violent wastelands and asked our Black and Hispanic neighbors "what do you have to lose?" by voting for him, what sort of bigotry are we truly being asked to tolerate?
When we are asked to show "respect" for a candidate or party whose platform calls for "reparative or conversion therapy" for LGBT persons -- a medical treatment that has been deemed "unethical" by every major medical association in the country -- what sort of discrimination are we truly being asked to respect?
When we are asked to show "tolerance" for a candidate who has denigrated the military service of a former Presidential candidate from his own party and attacked the Gold Star parents of another military hero, what sort of cruelty are we truly being asked to tolerate?
A Path Forward
Whenever I'm challenged by issues of tolerance and respect, I find myself turning to the work of educator and scholar Sonia Nieto, who offers a conceptual model for understanding diversity in society. Nieto's model includes the following stages:
- respect and affirmation
In Nieto's model, tolerance is the lowest level of understanding. I would suggest that too many of our political leaders and candidates are not even at this "entry level", let alone our fellow citizens. Our national elections can be opportunities for our large and diverse citizenry to come together in a sort of "Town Square"; a place where persons who hold differing points of view, beliefs, backgrounds, and perspectives can work together in an effort to advance our society. A place to be heard, and, perhaps more importantly, to listen. This is something we don't do enough of as individuals, or in our society in general.
But having these discussions result in more respect and tolerance will require that all stakeholders show respect and tolerance in their words, actions, and behaviors. And this won't be accomplished by simple requests for civility. It will require hard work, difficult discussions, and ... respect and tolerance for all persons.