I was recently getting gas when a large pickup truck swooped by with a huge American flag flapping on a pole attached to the cab of the truck. I was impressed, as intended, by the pride and defiant spirit it represented. And I was appalled and offended, as was also intended, with how the flag-whipping, red-white-and blue festooned truck violated so much of my personal style and values.
And then as I screwed in the gas cap I noticed my “Civility First: So We Can Work Together” magnet attached to my rear fender. And then I also remembered the array of bumper stickers that decorated the rear bumper of my car: “War is not the answer,” "Love Thy Neighbor: No Exceptions," "Torture is Always Wrong,” “Free Tibet,” and “Act Justly; Love Mercy; Walk Humbly.” (Yah, that’s a lot, I know!) And I wondered if my moralizing messages might actually be as in-your-face offensive to a number of people as the guy and his flag draped pickup is to me and others.
And then as I was pulling out of the gas station into a line of cars someone courteously stopped and motioned for me to go ahead. Because I was in traffic near our military base in the conservative end of Whidbey Island, I wondered whether the courteous person, after he discovered all my bumper stickers, might have regretted his kindness.
Assuming the man who let me in line leaned conservative, and whether or not he agreed with my bumper stickers, he displayed a much appreciated thoughtfulness and care. He may not have appreciated all my bumper stickers, but he would likely be inclined to agree with the ones with biblical references that amount to kindness. And assuming I were to have a "bumper sticker conversation” with him then at the local coffee shop, we could have a pretty decent conversation about why the other stickers were important to me. And I would probably also learn a good deal about how the other messages were actually offensive to him. (This actually sounds like fun!)
And the more I thought about it, I think I could have a pretty good start at a conversation with the pickup trucker guy as well, given the chance. I could affirm his strong pride in his country (maybe I’d find out he was a vet who risked his life for that flag, for example), and I could tell him about how he reminds me about how proud I was when I was young decorating the spikes of my bike with red-white-and blue crepe paper for the Memorial Day parades in my home town. And I could tell him that he reminds me of the energy that it took for those from the Oklahoma dust bowl, the Scandinavians, and other immigrants to come to Whidbey Island and be able to make a good and free life here coming out of dire poverty and oppression they were forced to leave. And I could guess he feels the rapid changes in our culture not only don’t offer him any benefit, they actually seem to demean and threaten him - and he’s frustrated and mad.
Now all this isn’t entirely hypothetical. When we had a “Civility First” booth at the county fair I actually had some significant but brief conversations with folks I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Even if the first encounter was often wary and even harsh, I found people were willing to talk about their lives and values enough that we could find common ground when we were able to share a story or two. One guy, who by appearance was quite different from me (and I to him!), took one look at me and asked if “I was one of the So. Whidbey bleeding-hearts kind of guy.” I was able to say a quick “Whoa!” and we ended up having a fairly personal conversation after he told me where that comment came from. And then he told me that both his wife and mother died at nearly the same time when his children were young, and he had raised two daughters as a single parent, and how proud he was that they were both now having successful lives in the military and college. These kinds of conversations evolved when we broached the simple topic of what civility meant to those we met. We need to find more situations and context that would offer other opportunities for discussion. We can check any offense to us with a hardy “Whoa!” but the important part is that we then need to listen for “where the words come from” so the conversation can continue.
All this may seem only a hopeful and pleasant reverie. But too often we cannot even imagine having meaningful conversations with “the other,” and perhaps if we can begin to imagine these kinds of conversations the opportunities will follow. If I am as gracious as I would like to believe I am, bridging the class and political divides should not be that difficult or impossible. But we have to be intentional, curious, and, perhaps most importantly, humble, courageous, and vulnerable enough to make them happen. Let’s keep trying.*
P.S. I welcome the opportunity in include others in my list serve mailing. And I will promptly unsubscribe if you no long wish to receive my Saturday Evening Posts. Just let me know.
*A number of groups like Civility First and Braver Angels are effectively providing these kinds of opportunities. See CivilityFirst.org and BraverAngels.org for more information.