He stepped to the microphone on the far side of the auditorium. The first thing I noticed wasn’t his expression. That corner of the room was poorly lit so his face was difficult to see. It was how straight he was standing. His back and shoulders were rigid. His wasn’t the temerity of the petite teacher-mom who preceded him, folded in on herself and practically vibrating with nervous energy. What was it?
“My name is John* and I’m from [town X]” he announced. “I have two questions, although depending on the answer to the first one, the second may be self-evident.” He turned at this moment so that instead of facing the Congresswoman he faced all of us sitting in the theater of the community college on a Sunday afternoon. “I’m a conservative. You all probably hate me for that. Admit it.”
A murmur rippled across the room.
“No sir, I do not,” I heard nearby.
“There probably aren’t even any other Republicans here today. Are there any?” he challenged. Ten different hands pointed high. Most calmly. A few proudly. None of them defensive or defiant. The fingers were relaxed.
John began to explain why he was so upset. He’s been noticing, as many of us have, a divisiveness in our society. He’s felt himself and his ideas to be the target of hateful rhetoric. He accused what he perceives to be a (left leaning) majority of moral narcissism.
He shared an anecdote about a long time acquaintance of his. After one conversation that had them both a bit aggravated from their opposing viewpoints the other man stood up and said, “I don’t like what you said, but I respect that you told me.”
I’ll admit that John’s combative challenge to the crowd initially prickled my own defenses. The charge of moral narcissism stung. What if he was right?
The town hall meeting ran far past the scheduled conclusion and I had family expecting me at home for dinner. But I found myself looking over to where John sat as the final community members wrapped up their questions and concerns. I found myself still looking to him as I was carried by the tide of people when we stood to leave. Once you’re in the stream it’s tough to move out of the current.
I was torn. A not small voice was telling me to walk over and introduce myself. But I’m a little shy about stepping outside my comfort zone socially. And the kids. And…well before I had talked myself into doing it I was out the door.
It just seemed like maybe we’re all feeling attacked lately. No matter which side of the issues we’re on. And when our fists are balled and our backs are stiff with strong feelings, it’s easy to glaze the other as the worst possible version of himself. We set up strawmen that would be easy to revile. Except I bet John isn’t someone I would truly revile if I knew him. For one thing he had the courage to face a room full of what he was convinced were hostile opponents. For another, he seems to believe, like my dad, that “while I may not agree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Maybe if we each reached out and introduced ourselves to one person across the spectrum, not to debate, but to find the places where what we hope and hold dear is the same. As the Congresswoman pointed out, if we took the time to show up on a Sunday afternoon, we all care about our country and our communities. That’s a start. What else do we share? My guess is that while our plans for how to go about it may be wildly different, we’re really not.
*I didn’t catch his actual name.