Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bringing humanity back to politics

By Mary C. Tillotson

I found myself back in the swing of full-time journalism, and now it's my job to pay close attention to the goings-on in the government, and to read lots and lots of news. Sometimes the most difficult part is sifting through the name-calling, the caricatures, the nonsense and distilling the actual truth of what's going on and why people believe it.

Let's take the issue of abortion, for example. That's controversial enough. If you make a statement one way or the other about it, either you approve of killing children or you're against women's health. From big-name liberal newspapers to conservative opinion journals to bloggers to average Joe on Facebook, many (not all) people are making this sort of claim all over. If you believe something else, your reasoning must be stupid because you're a complete and total idiot.

This is not how civilized people behave. This is not how civilized people treat each other.

Last weekend, I visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and I saw this painting:

House of Representatives, Samuel F.B. Morse
I was awed. These men don't look like they agree on everything, but they look like they respect each other. They look like they're interested in having sensible conversations (that may get heated) about how to further the good of the country. They don't look petty. Some of them may think they're in the presence of an idiot or two, but they look like they listened to what he has to say and considered his reasoning before writing him off.

I don't think this because "anything older is better" -- this is just my reading of their postures and facial expressions. Here's a more detailed look:

The House of Representatives by Samuel F. B. Morse, 1822-1823 (detail)
Image from Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons
It's a completely different attitude than the one taken by many Americans -- especially the more outspoken ones -- today.

For a while, I tried hard to get out of journalism, specifically because of this caricaturing, vilifying world that I did not want to be a part of. But I've come to realize that it's not just journalists, or even primarily journalists, who do it. It's politicians, bureaucrats, and presidents of organizations working to effect change -- it's the average Joes who share their snarky comments on Facebook and pass around "look what an idiot this person is" articles on Twitter. It's not limited to a particular profession or field.

We need more generosity and more listening; we need less knee-jerk reactions and conclusions jumped to. Because people can't be reduced to sound bites.

Back in my days at a small-town weekly, I loved listening to people's stories, from the Native American woman who wove baskets in the traditional way to the man who'd given up college football scholarships to enlist in Vietnam. When I found myself seated next to a longtime community organizer at an awards ceremony I was covering, I asked her how she'd ended up in her job. She'd left a higher paying job a few decades before for this one, so she could do work she believed in, be happier, and have a more flexible schedule (and so be a better mom to her kids). She would be retired by now if she'd kept her old job, and some days she'd like to be retired, but if she were to do it over she wouldn't change a thing.

I saw her differently after that conversation. When I started national reporting (and all of it over the phone!), I worried that I wouldn't be able to listen. Sometimes, all I can get is an emailed statement from someone I've never spoken with, or a very brief chat on the phone -- but it's not always like that. Politicians and policy analysts are real people, too, even if I'm not drinking tea in their living rooms. When I have the chance, I listen. I don't have to buy into the idea that every issue is exactly two-sided, or that anyone who disagrees is stupid.

Nobody has completely pure motives, and I know that -- and when it affects my stories, I ought to report it. I am, first of all, a servant of the truth, and sugarcoating is dishonest.

But it's equally dishonest to leave my readers to assume the worst. We all expect certain people, or certain groups of people, to be corrupt, ideological, or out of touch. But it's dishonest if I just assume that, if I don't look into it, if I just let my readers believe something I can't, in this instance, verify. Maybe someone isn't corrupt but has a completely different perspective -- and I have a responsibility to find out.

If there is goodness, let me reveal it. Believing the other person may have a perspective I can learn from -- that is the beginning of respect, and the beginning of sensible and worthwhile conversation.

Think about this next time you read the news. Check yourself. What assumptions are you making? Are they fair? Think before your sarcastic comments go on Facebook or Twitter. Are you treating people -- politicians included -- like human beings or like punching bags? Are you furthering conversation or polarization?

I don't mean to say that "everyone is right," or that there is no truth or best way. I do mean to say that snark wars and hasty assumptions are a horrible way of discovering and sharing truth.


  1. Wonderful article, Mary! I think people like to be clever or appear superior, by choosing opinions which appear wonderful, but seem to lack charity. I always hope for more examples of basic humanity and love when I read articles, even when I don't agree with aspects.

  2. Thanks, Julie! You can have almost any belief about - how we should run schools, or the government, or health care - and still treat people like human beings. We can disagree and still work together to find the truth or best way instead of one-upping each other with clever comments.

  3. Would you mind if I posted a link to this for my students at Baker? We've talked about respectful argument in class.


This site is no longer accepting comments. Please check us out at and share your reply there. Thank you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.