It seems that you and I have a problem communicating, my friend. You have been inspired by a man I and most of my associates regard as a demagogue, a racist, a religious bigot, and an enemy of treasured national institutions and of international order itself. And when I try to tell you why your hero and his policies are horrible, I find you and your friends are like the Terminator: You can’t be bargained with. You can’t be reasoned with. You cannot be brought to acknowledge obvious facts or relinquish obvious lies. When it comes to people your leader treats as the Other, you don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And when it comes to trying to persuade me that I am wrong, you absolutely will not stop… ever.
So, my Terminator friend, we have a problem. Unlike the Terminator of the movies, who is sent from the future, you are sent from the past. You are the classmate I went to high school with, my long-term colleague at the office, my fellow parishioner, a member of my social club, my cousin, my barber for a decade. We have a history, you and I, ties that bind us. And yet there is this … thing … between us now.
It does not help at all that your hero models such pride in offensive behavior. Based on his example, you are learning to be unapologetic for rhetoric that decent people had spent generations learning to be ashamed of. Despite the fact that your group’s current political preeminence comes from gerrymandering, voter suppression, non-majoritarian provisions of the constitution and foreign interference, you strut and gloat as if you truly represented the majority, going right back to the lies your leader told about the crowds at his inauguration. Your policies frequently seem to be motivated mostly by nothing more complicated than the desire to evoke “liberal tears,” whatever the predictable damage to our economy or our environment. Your gibes at those among us we regard as most desperately in need of empathy may be the worst of it. It makes talking with you quite difficult.
Yes, I know that you and your friends look on me and my friends as misguided and in need of correction. Your view of us evidently mirrors somehow our view of you. And so you should know that you have no chance of convincing us, either. Our view is we are the proponents of logic and reason, mental habits you seem to us to have abandoned, and of compassion, which your rhetoric seems to make manifest you do not possess. We shall not be convinced by people like you. We enrage each other, and our minds are not destined to meet. That is the thing that has come between us.
But the assurance we should each have by now that we are not going to convert each other should also be key to our coexistence. If only because of our shared past, I do not want to lose our connection to each other, and I sense that you do not want to lose it either, no matter how angry we make each other.
To that end, my plan is to go on being civil with you, even when you are not doing the same. This is not for your benefit but for mine. Incivil exchanges between us would do further damage, and to no good end. Frequently, to maintain civility, I shall not engage when you try to draw me out on the things that divide us; as I’ve said, we know we can’t convince each other. But you will also find that civility does not always mean passivity; when your talk “displaces the mirth” (as Lady Macbeth put it) of a social gathering , I shall say what needs to be said to protect the party from your incivility. I may even engage you briefly on the issues, where I judge it to be safe, not in the hope of convincing you, but just to make sure my side is represented. Mostly, though, I shall focus on the common things: the lives and deaths of our friends; our children’s accomplishments; our work; our travels,;our businesses; our sports teams. And I would beg you to do the same.
I am not naive or patient enough to think that what we refrain from saying face-to-face will go away. In the public sphere, in the press, in social media, where we speak with our keyboards rather than our tongues, we can all be somewhat freer. And in our current straits, I am relieved to be able to outsource much of my anger to late-night comedians, who can articulate better than I the way I feel and the reasons for those feelings. But my resort to those comforts will remain a matter between me and my TV screen.
If there is to be a victory of my side over you and yours, I know it will not come from winning you over; we shall have to beat you, that is all, with what tools our faulty political system still affords us. Never doubt that my dollars and my votes and my pen will be at the service of my side. But I pledge that for my part, our struggle with you and yours will still skirt fratricidal tactics or rancor. I shall try to manage my actions so that at the angriest moments, you and I can still shake hands.
In time, perhaps common political ground will reappear; I cannot predict how that will go. But I am determined not to lose you, and I hope you will match my determination. As angry as we make each other, we must remain larger and more connected than our tribalisms would have us be. As long as we retain some connection, a vital hope will remain. So I intend to try to preserve it, and I hope you will as well.
Jack L.B. Gohn is partner emeritus with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.