The Vulgar Mistake

Iowa’s Governor had me thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson this weekend. 

Actually, I had been thinking of him a lot this year, usually because of something the President had tweeted, but this was the first time Governor Reynolds had elicited from me one of my favorite Emerson quotations.

In a speech at what will ostensibly become her annual political fundraiser should she have more than 18 months in office, Governor Reynolds was firing up her base.  She said, “As we all know as we travel the state, the liberals are unhinged and they are out for us and we need to double down and do all we can and if you keep fighting, I’ll keep fighting,” (emphasis mine).

I don’t feel unhinged.

I suppose this type of rhetoric is common across the spectrum, and I do not claim innocence myself, having been critical of many a political opponent long before I ever became a practicing politician.  I try, however, to re-center on this Emerson axiom whenever anger, fear or political paranoia might get the better of me:

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

Opposing an idea is not the same thing as oppressing those who espouse it.  Similarly, disagreeing is not the same thing as not listening – an issue that was raised locally last week.  We do ourselves a disservice, though, regardless of our respective positions, when we engage in personal attacks, and when we take opponents’ “attacks” personally.

Please don’t get me wrong, many of the issues at hand are intensely personal.  Reproductive rights, civil rights, gender issues and mental health access are but a few such issues that leap to mind, and there are many more.  This is why it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking “they are out for us.”  And yes, sometimes personal rhetorical attacks are meant to be personal, intended to cause offense.  Like my dad used to say, “Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Yet it is oh so easy to demonize.  We who oppose our current President – his ideas (or lack thereof), his persona, his actions and those of his cabinet and congressional supporters – all too often resort to similar ad hominem attacks.  I believe I have even used that same term, “unhinged,” when describing this or that thing the president said or did.  I do, however, think it is a little worse to use such tactics when talking about one’s own constituents.  As they say in the world of stand-up comics, it’s always better to punch up than punch down.

At the same Kim Reynolds rally, Iowa Republican chairman Jeff Kaufmann took a slightly more passive-aggressive approach, intoning, ““This party does not take our orders from the union bosses…. We don’t take our orders from obnoxious protesters.” (again, emphasis mine).  The implication, of course, is that those evil Lib’ruls over there are out to ruin everything that real Americans hold dear.  This form of “otherizing” is as old as politics itself.  In this school of thought, “those people” are to be feared, and it is even OK to persecute them, because they are different than “us.”  Did you participate in “Occupy”? You’re a Trustafarian. Support Black Lives matter?  You’re a thug.  Feel the Bern? You’re a commie.

We on the political left do it too, though.  Support the “Tea Party”? You’re a racist. Identify as Christian? You’re a zealot.  Support gun rights? You have a pro-mass-murder agenda.  We’ve even been doing it within the Democratic party.  Despite the election being over for nearly a year, Sanders supporters face constant “No True Scotsman” fallacies while Clinton Supporters are derided as corporate sellouts.

These too are “vulgar mistakes,” and to the degree that we can stop sinking to this level –recognizing that we all get frustrated and blurt out angry bile or personal attacks from time to time – to the degree that we can let such attacks roll off our backs when they are directed at us, perhaps even defend an opponent when they face such vitriol, then that is the degree to which we can rightfully say that our ideals deserve to win the day.