As I said earlier, it’s stupid to wait for an arbitrary date before resolving to improve yourself. In that spirit, I’d like to share my first-ever January 19th Resolution.
It’s going to take some explaining, though.
I recently got myself needlessly tangled up in knots with some people I care about over a recent column of mine over at Went West. Someone emailed a George Will column to me, I wrote a detailed-enough critique of it that it seemed to make sense to turn it into a column, and things went downhill from there.
By “downhill” I mean only that I found myself in the position of defending my remarks on a subject I don’t know much about, and that turned into a larger political argument. It was actually a good discussion and I’m glad it happened, but that doesn’t change the fact that (1) it’s not really my brief over at Went West to discuss national politics and (2) I know enough about national politics to have some opinions, but-as good a game as I talk-I am not qualified to be making blanket statements about what should or shouldn’t happen, what policies should or shouldn’t be adopted, who is or isn’t “deceptive or just lazy.” (Neither are 90 percent of the people who get listened to about politics in this country, but if I’m not going to accept Coen’s saying “but everyone else does it” when he gets in trouble on the playground, I should begin to demand the same standards of myself.)
You can’t live your life by cute aphorisms and fables (or can you?), but I’m grateful to my Washington Times Communities colleague John Creighton (who seems like a hell of a guy; I hope to meet him some day) for passing along a story that Martin Luther King, Jr. related in a sermon. Apparently, King and his brother were driving at night, and oncoming cars failed to dim their high beams.
“In frustration, Kings’ brother declared that the next passing car that left the lights on high beam would receive the same treatment in return (how many of us have done this?).
King chided his brother, asking what good that would do except put passengers in both cars at greater risk of an accident.
American politics, these past 16 years, has been blinded by the high beams of anger and spite. In the 1990s, Republicans were consumed by their loathing of the Clintons. This decade, Democrats can barely see beyond their visceral distaste for the Bush Administration.
Both sides devote countless hours to belittling one another. A book and talk show industry are built on these practices. Imagine what might have been accomplished, if the creativity devoted toward proclaiming how much we loath one another had been directed toward a constructive purpose.”
So, here’s my resolution. In the various public forums where I have the luxury of pretty much picking what I write about, I want to start making more of an effort to write with the purpose of improvement, either of myself or the conversation I’m taking part in. That’s not to say that I’ll never criticize another George Will column, but-if I do-it will only be consistent with this resolution if I do it humbly, acknowledging what I do or don’t know about the subject, and not attributing to malice what can be just as easily explained by haste, miscommunication, or some other more innocent cause.
But this resolution does have implications for my subject matter. It’s not clear to me that posts countering George Will are a very helpful contribution to the political conversation. For one thing, it lets other people pick what I’m going to talk about, and I think I have enough imagination to come up with my own material. I’d rather be talking about what I’m for rather than what I’m against.
In a different life, I would have made a very good political columnist. I’m glad I’m not living that life, though, because I’ve come increasingly to think that it doesn’t achieve anything important to wade into partisan arguments and score what feel like some hits for your side. (If the hits are a result of your careful and conscientious research, then by all means, swing away-but I’m not engaged in that level of research when it comes to politics, and I need to concede that fact more often.)
The next book on my reading list is Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. I suspect already, however, that he will not say that the best way to do it is to tell people they are wrong.
Instead, I suspect that you influence people by showing that you are genuinely curious, humble, and not wearing ideological blinders. It also helps if you stick to talking to what you know about, or at least what you are genuinely interested in learning about.
What am I genuinely interested in? The intro I wrote to Went West still stands, I think.
“So that’s what Went West is about: what my new vantage point in the Rocky Mountain West is helping me learn about myself, about how to live, what to believe, and how best to act on those beliefs.”
To this end, I think I need to keep my writing more personal, more informed by what I actually know (rather than what I hope is true), and more respectful and humble. I hope readers will feel free to call me on it when I miss this mark. (Disclaimer: I will still be sarcastic from time to time.)