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Love: declining to comment is sometimes the best policy

“I feel like compassion is very out right now. Curiosity is out. What’s in is condemnation and punishment. Now is not the moment for nuance; people do not want it,” Young Jean Lee, author of the play “Straight White Men,” told The New York Times. Lee worries that her play today will trigger a backlash. However, nursing a lifetime of grudges, she seems ready for the battle. We will see how her choice for her Broadway debut plays out. Maybe, her head-on confrontation will build a better community. Others may prefer a less belligerent method.

A tacit decline to enter into a specific argumentative conversation may be the act of grace that we call “tact.” Not every mistake, ill-chosen word, or stupid idea should be pounced upon. You learn quite quickly in New York City that civil inattention may be a necessary survival skill and certainly helps to maintain the peace. We have loud mouths on every corner. Some neighborhoods have well-established loudmouths who have taken up residence without any particular invitation. They become “neighborhood characters” written up in our newspapers.

An outsider may interpret a New York City resident’s blasé attitude as a cold, rude, or an insult. Such a misinterpretation overlooks the genuine and constant humanity of New Yorkers that have built a rough and ready tolerance – and when necessary, defense for all sorts of characters, races, classes, and the like. Reticence and tactical silence makes the city work for the most part. This doesn’t mean total silence. Voice should be given in the service for big narratives that further the Good Samaritan ethic of loving strangers, valuing their contributions, and tending their wounds. But one must choose the dramatic narrative into which you act.

 

Commenting according to your framework

In today’s public square, one should quickly learn not to be drawn into the contentious world that arises from a question from your interrogator. Arguers can be relentless in trying to force an answer to a specific question. Don’t do it! Don’t let someone force you into their narrative. Sometimes, you just have to decline the conversation that is being offered. This particularly applies to social media. At least, answer the question that you think that they should have asked. You should prep the battle ground with the framework that is most likely to bring the Good Samaritan attitude forward.

 

The provocative outing of Sarah Huckabee Sanders' shaming by the Red Hen

After a whirlwind of personal insults about her physical appearance and her morality, threats of violence, and loud calls to make the public square unbearable for anyone who supports Trump, Sanders thought that she would take a respite with family and friends at the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia. Perhaps, she forgot that, unlike Washington D.C., the public accommodation law in Virginia seems to allow for discrimination of service based on politics.

I appreciate that both Sanders and Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen, were polite and stood up for their values. But did they handle the mad in themselves in the right way? Should the restaurant in Virginia have refused service, and should the member of its staff have created a firestorm by posting on social media its “86” whiteboard notice, a restaurant code that it had denied service to Sanders? Should Sanders have issued a tweet in reply later that morning? Would it have been more meaningful if Wilkinson had taken the opportunity to get to know Sanders and talk through the restaurant crew’s complaints? Maybe, the owner could have invited Sanders back to the restaurant for a private chat and lunch with her and the staff. Sanders could have given an invitation to the Red Hen crew to come to lunch at the White House.

It was refreshing to the nation when President Barack Obama invited a policeman and a harassed Harvard professor to sit down over a beer to discuss their conflict. In July 2009, noted African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrived back from a trip and couldn’t get into his house. He started to try to force the stuck door open. A neighbor, fearing a house break-in, called the police. Sergeant James Crowley and other Cambridge, Massachusetts police confronted Gates on suspicion of breaking and entering. They also feared that a confederate of his was lurking upstairs and could come down belligerent at any moment. Gates was incensed, saying that they were picking on him as a Black man. The dispute increased in volume leading to Gates arrest for disorderly conduct.

The affair was sorted out after a couple of hours but started to spiral into prolonged racial conflict. Obama at first associated the police response with the long history of racism in the nation. The president soon regretted his ill-tempered remarks and changed tack by inviting the professor and police officer to the White House to sort out differences over a cold beer. Vice President Joe Baden joined them at the July 30th get together. The result was a healed breach and a lesson in Good Samaritan thinking to see the good in each other. Gates later told The New York Times, "I don't think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together [...] the president was great – he was very wise, very sage, very Solomonic."

It may be hard to consider the actions and words of the Red Hen restaurateur or Sanders as Solomonic. Certainly, neither hailed Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. It would have been so much better for the nation if Sanders and Wilkinson had sat down over a drink and dinner at the Red Hen or the White House. We here in New York City would be happy to host them at the Columbia University dining room. We would try to make the social space between them a holy ground of uninterrupted interaction.

There is a problem of entering into these social media fights. It is so easy to make mistakes of emphasis, omission, facts, and fairness. It is so easy to dip one’s toe into the troubled waters of social media, only to hit a rock before one hardly gets into the water. It doesn’t have to be that way. Social media can carry the Good Samaritan approach forward also.

I am reminded of Mr. Fred Rogers’ response to the mass broadcasting of television. He saw this new (at that time) media as an immense opportunity to reach children and to build neighborliness, but was stunned that the most popular way of doing kids’ shows seemed to feature people throwing pies into each other’s faces. He thought that there could be a better way, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. What if we could see our neighbor in everyone? What if we could realize that the day is special just because every stranger is a human being with something to teach us about compassion and love? What if social media could build a real community through the entire country?

 

The Good Samaritan approach

If we are going to criticize someone, then first we should consider if we have ever looked for the good in that person. We can learn from an imbroglio that the Los Angeles Times writer David Horsey created last year by his very insulting portrayal of Sanders’ looks. He did have the decency to apologize for his crude remarks. The paper published Horsey’s apology on November 1, 2017: “I want to apologize to Times readers – and to Sarah Huckabee Sanders – for a description that was insensitive and failed to meet the standards of our newspaper. It also failed to meet the expectations that I have for myself… I‘ve removed the offending description.”

Notice that the Times’ writer only fesses up to violating the Balaam principle of restricting his speech where appropriate. As Mark and I have pointed out, Balaam was a prophet for hire who had his curse words ready against Israel until he was halted by his Ass who saw an angel with a sword in front of them. Balaam’s ass could be read as a story about the value of negative law: restraints on action and speech sometimes help to prevent egregious harm.

But Horsey has nothing to say about any appreciation of Sanders. As a result, the apology ends up all about him and restoring his reputation but nothing to restore the reputation of Sanders. He doesn’t say that his personal insult was false, that Sanders has any good aspect, or offer any other positive kindness to her. He doesn’t even admit that she has a pleasant personal appearance (perhaps because it would seem so insincere). Horsey kept his cartoon with a chunky Sanders and a slit trench of a mouth. This is like saying that one is sorry for calling the pole cat an ugly stinky critter. His boundary maintenance to ward off his own fault reveals a problem of the Balaam’s Ass approach without the positive kindness of the Good Samaritan parable.

In his column, Horsey admits that he had sharply argued with “a friend of mine” against giving any praise for Sanders. He thought that “those strengths” that Sanders might possess were far outweighed by her near 100% distortion of the truth. So, really, what did his apology accomplish? To keep him from getting fired.

You might defend the columnist by saying that his job is to go ugly on opponents. That columnists don’t necessarily have any pretension to a commitment to civility or kindness. They are there to tear the scabs off. As a former editor of one of our best papers said to readers, don’t consider us your friend. We are not your friend when we come reporting on you.

Well, maybe there are occasions for the stiletto. But a scholar or journalist enters into general support for that sort of approach at the peril to his or her profession and credibility. In fact, most scholars and journalists want to build their communities, but in this day and age it is so hard to follow the examples of Balaam’s Ass and the Good Samaritan. Who doesn’t fail in these situations?

To delay our danger to social hari kari, we should practice Balaam’s Ass principle of restraining ourselves from opinionated comment in favor of opening up the public square to more people, particularly to our opponents. It will be hard to believe that we can lay a golden egg for someone when we have already laid a couple of rotten ones. So, invite the other chickens into the conversation, and don’t act like the rooster dominating and judging.

In regard to the Red Hen controversy, a local paper can expand the public square and enhance our democratic process by not rushing to take sides but by reporting on what local restaurateurs think should have been done.

A college professor could ask if his school’s cafeteria leaders are in favor of 86ing (denying service to) Trump or anti-Trump eaters. Or if Sanders or Wilkinson were to appear in the line to pay for her food, would she be able to get a meal?

This type of self-reflection is also good practice of the tu quoque (“you too”) principle: how would I feel if it was done to me? Should I post a pre-emptive “86” sign, “We reserve the right to not serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders or anyone from the Red Hen? Postmodernists, postsecularists, American traditionalists, and monks hunkered down for the dark Ages shouldn’t even try to eat here.”

Rather, post Mr. Rogers’ favorite number, “143.” (If you don’t know what this number means, go see the movie or just look it up on the web.)

This brings me to a last comment. From Mark, I have gained a new appreciation of the story of Balaam’s Ass as an example of one aspect of Journey journalism. Our self-restraint on our own opinions in the reporting process is commitment to listening well, particularly to new ideas, practices, and criticism. To move toward any objectivity, you have to affirmatively focus upon your conversation partner. To paraphrase the Golden Rule, listen to others in the manner that you would have them listen to you.

Mark is such a wonderful conversation partner that I have learned many other things too. I will re-read and re-read his comments. I am also very appreciative for The Colossian Forum’s Harold Heie, who put us together in the conversation on the question, “Are there limits to civil discourse and free speech?” and to his web resource people Brian Workman and Dan Hefferan.

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