We’re living in an age when provocation is highly rewarded.
Candidate Donald Trump provoked his Republican primary competitors with epithets like “little Marco” and “low energy” Jeb Bush. In recent weeks, Milo Yiannopoulos, a website editor often identified by the title “provocateur,” was rewarded with a lucrative book contract and a speaking role at the influential Conservative Political Action Conference.
Until he went too far. Apparently, our society keeps redefining what “too far” means. Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, with a newlywed wife at home, was apparently no longer enough to shock us into dumping this public figure into obscurity. Instead, voters rewarded him with the presidency.
However, Yiannopoulos was not so fortunate. After his comments about sex and teenage boys became public this week, he’s out of a book contract, a job and a speaking role. For now. He has pledged to return to the spotlight, and even splashier..
I could go on about the relative outrage over female and male assault, but that’s a topic for another day. What concerns me is that Americans react like Pavlov’s dog, salivating over name-calling, “yuge” Twitter audiences and whatever is viral, trending, titillating, angry or divisive.
Do we no longer attend to substance? Where is the space in our lives for quieter, saner voices? Former Secretary of State James Baker on the right, or Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left? OK, Sanders isn’t quiet. But you get my point. He’s thoughtful. He has ideas.
A reactive, sharply divided country is what we have, and the split is serving us poorly. There are family members and important subjects we’re avoiding. Popular wisdom has held that one shouldn’t discuss religion or politics. However, to heal our divisions and move our country forward, it’s essential that we toss out that old truism and bring politics back into our private conversations but discuss them respectfully.
Yet, as in any good arena, there must be rules. Rules allow teams of men to rush at each other on a gridiron without producing total chaos.
One useful rule would be to stop uttering phrases simply to provoke. I have no control, of course, over President Trump tweeting about “liberal activists” or a “so-called judge,” but the rest of us can commit to packing away the verbal bombs in our lives. As author Don Miguel Ruiz advised, words have power; be impeccable with your word.
Another possibility I’ll borrow from a long-ago conversation with Ed Rigaud, founder of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. As he was developing the center in the late 1990s, he spoke about a room where people could converse about race, one-on-one. The idea was disconcerting, but we’ve reached a point of desperation in our American conversation, about both race and politics, when we should try it. Where there’s discomfort, there may be growth.
A final suggestion comes from the world of project management. A facilitator runs a meeting of stakeholders, who often have competing interests. When the participants get stuck in an argument, the facilitator moves the sticking point aside — into a “parking lot,” they say — so the conversation can continue productively.
A productive conversation about politics? In this environment? Dream on, you might say. But we’ve been stuck in the parking lot for a good while. It’s time to try.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.