Yesterday on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives, in a surprisingly frank statement, the Minority Leader chastised her “white male” colleagues for playing cards instead of listening to her female colleagues’ comments on an important issue – the right of citizens to protest in the streets. The ensuing exchange was captured and placed on YouTube. Instead of a gracious recognition of Representative Hortman’s frustration, the video shows a male colleague, obviously distressed, rising and asking her to apologize. But she doesn’t. She says that she’s tired of watching her male counterparts ignore the relatively few females – particularly women of color - in the legislature, mirroring the language I’ve been hearing lately from Black people weary of explaining to whites the concept and implications of their privilege. Congressman Dettmer replies, “I forgive you,” instead of offering the more gracious and hopeful response: “I hear you.” Undoubtedly he will be both yelled at and praised on social media for his part in this unfortunate confrontation. So will Representative Hortman. Undoubtedly, the controversy will escalate over the coming days. But sadly, what’s lost in all this is the chance to examine and solve the complex issues that lie just below the surface. How can we fix the divide if we don’t talk about it… if we don’t listen?
In the US Senate this week, we are about to lose one of the last hopeful signs that our country can be made better through the sharing of ideas, compromise, and the search for real solutions that render government both reasoned and manageable. Real governing has been lost in the cacophony of the times. “It’s their fault for being too political,” both parties cry as, between the two of them, they make inevitable the ‘nuclear option’ that will cement what already is true – no one is listening to each other, and as a result, good governing – and citizenship – disintegrates before our eyes. Common decency is a victim, too.
Surely, our new Insulter-in-Chief has instigated and eggs on much of the fear and incivility that has driven us into separate corners so full of fear and righteous anger. But he would never have been elected if the problem did not already exist. He just gave us the permission and impetus to get louder and less forgiving in our beliefs and language. Rural Americans feel left out of economic prosperity and looked down upon by “elitist” city dwellers; conservatives call the poor ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled’; liberals fear their country is taking dangerous steps toward autocracy and ruin, yet they exacerbate their entrenchment by subscribing to a FaceBook page called ‘Too informed to Vote Republican.’ Meanwhile, immigrants are vilified and scared; and a large contingent of our population continues to remind us, with very limited success, that Black lives matter, too.
The many rifts exposed by the 2016 election and their consequences do not bode well for America, and I fear they will be magnified by the ubiquity and immediacy of social media and ‘fake news’. Yesterday’s video from Minnesota shows just how far we have to go. It is too easy to dismiss – and even avoid - those we disagree with, too tempting to shoot off an insult, instead of showing empathy and offering hope.
I am no saint or impartial bystander. Like everyone else, I have an idea of who’s right and who’s wrong in these political and philosophical debates, and I’m more determined than ever to be vocal about it. I owe it to the many people who have neither the privilege nor the voice that I do. I owe it to my grandchildren who will, I’m afraid, inhabit a world far different than my own. I am distressed, however, to find my own rhetoric becoming less civil as I feel overwhelmed by the reckless behavior that is passing for governing in these dark days. “If ‘they’ can be blunt and uncivil, well then, so can I.”
This video is a microcosm of the problem before us; and it reminds me to retrieve my better self and say, “I hear you,” to both sides, even when I strongly disagree with one of them. I have already sent a postcard and a tweet to Representative Hortman commending her bravery in speaking truth to power, and I was tempted to send equally brief missives to Representative Dettmer, chastising him for his insensitivity. But instead, I think I’ll write a longer letter to both – without angry words or shaming – that respects where each is coming from and asks them to govern well and listen to each other... to do it for the sake of our grandchildren.