Our government is shutting down. Those in Congress and the Senate cannot work out an agreement. People are refusing to speak to each other. Parks are getting closed (Some friends of mine were planning a trip to Yosemite next week—it has sadly been cancelled; some other friends were going camping this weekend at a park run by the Corps of Engineers, but the park is now closed and they cannot go). The National Zoo is closed. The Smithsonian is closed. Federal employees are being put on furlough—forced to stay home without pay—by no choice of their own. We are in a mess.
And the debate about this shutdown rages on. In the Capitol building. In the White House. In the media. On Facebook.
Most of you reading this blog know me personally—you are my friend (or acquaintance) and you know me. And so you know that I am the daughter of a member of Congress. This is my dad’s ninth year in Congress, his fifth term serving his district, his state, and his country.
For days, weeks, months, and years, I have read your posts about gun control, abortion, taxation, education, and other issues we care about. I have even made some of my own. Most recently, of course, your posts have centered on the government shutdown and the Affordable Care Act. Although I am not an insider—I am not in the government or in politics; and I have not read the 20,000 page ACA document (hopefully it is triple-spaced and includes lots of figures and images!!)—I do want to respond to a new trend in our public discourse that bothers me: the way we tend to generalize and characterize our government representatives—who they are, what they do, how they think, how smart they are, or even how patriotic they are.
I have read Facebook post after blog post after Twitter post that characterize these men and women in Congress and the Senate as “power-hungry blokes,” “idiots,” “greedy,” “immoral,” “egotistical schmucks,” “greatest hoaxes ever,” and other similar sensationalist, startling, vitriolic, and overall rude comments about these public servants.
As an American, as a citizen, and as the daughter of one of these people constantly attacked in the news and social media, I have to object.
Why are we spewing so much vitriol? Why do we harbor so much bitterness? Why are we so angry? And why do we use social media to call names, point fingers, and spread hostility?
Now I am not saying I have never done such a thing. I’m sure my words on Facebook have hurt someone or, perhaps unwittingly, made someone feel attacked. I apologize for that. It was not my intention. Yet, even still, I know that words can hurt.
So, over the years, I have become even more intentional about not defaming people in this manner—whether on a personal level or about a politician I don’t know. For one, I do it out of respect for my dad. He is a public figure and I do not want my views, my failures, or my mess-ups to impact his career in any way. But I also do it because I don’t want to hurt people. Attacking people—even public figures—is rude. It’s defamatory. It’s called “flaming.” And words hurt. We all know this. We were taught this before we started kindergarten.
Yet we seem to have lost sight of this important truth.
What’s so ironic about all of our public and online discussions of these men and women is that the people who represent us do not talk about each other like this; they do not view each other in such hateful ways. Sure, they have different personalities, different views, and different ideas of what government should do—and they fight hard and passionately and vehemently for their viewpoints—but, for the most part, they get along personally. They attend parties and dinners together; they attend prayer breakfasts together; they office next door to each other; they co-sponsor bills; they vacation together; they collaborate at fundraising events; they even stand together on the steps of the Capitol—unified—for the world to see.
I was able to witness some of this camaraderie this summer when my family spent a week in Washington DC. My husband Shane, a pulpit minister, was selected as the guest chaplain for one of these days and he got to go down on the House floor to lead the opening prayer. My daughter, Elizabeth, was able to sit on the floor watching him while he led the prayer and then watching her grandfather as he followed-up with a short speech. She also got to go down there another time with my dad when a vote was going on. While she was there, people from both parties went up to her and spoke to her kindly—about what it was like to be there and what it was like to have “Teddy” for a grandfather. People from both parties also interacted with my husband—joking with him, engaging him in conversation, assisting him with what he needed, and just being nice. There is a level of respect these people have for each other. They realize what many of us don’t—passionate debate and dialogue is possible when we critique the policy rather than the person. Though they have different opinions, they can still engage in passionate debate with each other. Even though they disagree—and do so adamantly in their speeches (just look at my dad!)—there is a level of respect for each other. At their best, they are debating American ideals; they are debating what they think is best for Americans; what is best for our world. They are not out there to get rich off Americans or to hurt people; they are serving our country in the best way they know how.
Yes, these people hold partisan views—they must run as part of political parties, no less. But they work together and collaborate with each other on multiple efforts, initiatives, bills, and committees. Over the years, I have witnessed my dad—a Republican—work with Democrats to co-sponsor important bills. Things like this rarely get reported. And my dad does important non-partisan work—human work—work on human trafficking, sexual crimes against women and children, victims’ rights, domestic violence, and the environment. Other representatives and senators do the same. But this stuff doesn’t get reported. It’s not flashy, sensational, or controversial enough, I guess. To use the word of my five-year-old son, it’s “boring.”
If you are a student of politics or if you are knowledgeable about specific issues, such as human trafficking, higher education, transportation, or the environment, you know that people from all parties work together to resolve these issues. They co-sponsor legislation on a regular basis. They collaborate in committees. They dialogue and debate behind closed doors. Yet, the news media tends to only pay attention to and report on—dare I say—the partisan stances these men and women make, mostly ones that are controversial or that evoke intense emotion in viewers/readers. They put people on their shows to discuss hot-button issues. Why not, right? Their aim is for their story to be viewed, read, and shared. For many Americans, what “makes the news” is what we are informed about. And we are not getting the whole story.
These people—at least in my admittedly limited experience—are nice, good-hearted people who care about America and us, her people. I only know one member of Congress personally, but I know him really well. He serves as a good example to my point. Though he is passionate about certain subjects and holds views on all the issues he must vote on, he is serving this country in the best way he knows how. He is not greedy, power-hungry, or mean. He truly wants to serve this country and make a difference. I would guess that most people serving in government want this same thing. Just because these people hold different views than you does not make them bad people. We are always calling for bipartisanship—for some give and take from the people holding office. And yet we ourselves create straw men and straw women of them. We don’t see the good these people are doing in other realms.
And fail to realize (or remember) that these people representing us are individuals, too. Like you, they have families. They have sons and daughters. They have grandchildren. They have parents. They have friends. And they have feelings. Name-calling has hurt since kindergarten and it hurts as adults—no matter who you are or what position you hold.
Talk about policy. Share your personal stories about how certain laws or policies are impacting you. But don’t enter into the flame wars that are hurting our society, our mental health, our relationships with each other, and individuals we do not know. If you have ever been flamed on Facebook, you know how much it hurts. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. It’s frightening. But flaming says more about the people doing it than it does about the people it’s about.
Our public and private discourse would benefit from less cruelty, less divisiveness, and more understanding, compassion, and humility. More light, less darkness.
We are too angry on the Internet. It’s time to be nice, people.