"Never tell evil of a man, if you do not know it for certainty, and if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, 'Why should I tell it?'"
-- Johann Kaspar Lavater
On this past Sunday morning, Brian Stelter of CNN asked us to "practice empathy" to try to heal the divisiveness that has occurred during this long presidential campaign cycle. I agree and admit I have been thinking about this for months. I wish to offer a couple of ideas about how we might accomplish this and possibly hang on to some of our friends who so vehemently oppose our preferred candidate. At this point, nearly everyone has received one of those well-meaning emails from a friend or family member that is meant to show you the error of your thinking and that you must admit that your candidate is EVIL. A recent poll shows that 7% of Americans have lost a friend over this campaign. Of course, perhaps you don't care if you lost that particular friend and you might ask, "Why should I care about anyone whose values are so different from my own?" Actually, part of the beauty and strength of our friendships is that we rely on our friends to call us on our less than stellar behaviors. Similarly, the beauty and strength of America is that we encourage a discourse on diverse views and we allow for multiple conceptions of the good life.
In the earliest of democracies, Aristotle understood the importance of a strong middle class and argued for the value of inclusiveness:
"For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse." Aristotle, Politics, (1281b)
The good news about this presidential campaign is that Donald Trump has inspired millions of Americans to get involved in American politics. As a professor of philosophy whose emphasis is in political theory, I am thrilled by the fact that more of my students are paying attention to this upcoming presidential election. More than 84 million people just watched the first presidential debate and we have to thank Donald Trump for that. So, the good news is that Trump has increased dramatically the American voter's interest in presidential politics.
Of course, there is a down side to this in that he is not necessarily keeping our interest in a good way. I attribute this to the "road kill" effect: you see something grisly on the side of the road out of the corner of your eye, and you are powerless to look away as you drive past. In this campaign we seem to look forward to the next horrible thing we can hear about the other candidate. It seems that every day there is something sensational and damaging revealed about the two major party candidates. Unfortunately, watching the "road kill" politics of these past months has lead to divisive and denigrating rhetoric that has rarely been seen in the history of our country. The disapproval rating of these two candidates is the highest in American history. I can't remember a time when two candidates have been so hated. And I do mean hated.
As a professor of logic, I am deeply troubled by the lack of argument surrounding the issues of this campaign and the continual use of the ad hominem fallacy. It seems that tearing down the opposing candidate is more important than having good arguments for your own candidate. One of the best examples of this is the Trump surrogate, Kayleigh McEnany, who often appears on CNN. (My students tell me she is popular because she is "hot"). Hotness aside, even students who are just learning the logical fallacies tell me that Ms. McEnany rarely makes any point about her candidate without pivoting to attack Hillary Clinton. I concede that she is a master at using the ad hominem, red herring, and straw man fallacies to distract the audience from legitimate questions about her candidate. This has become the norm of this campaign and I have been wondering how we might overcome this.
While I support Hillary Clinton (and I hope that you will not stop reading now), I do not "hate" Trump. I am appalled by many of the things he says and I cannot tell how much of this is just said for shock value. He certainly is a showman and knows how to sell his brand and make money. His tweets are so outrageous that we are all waiting for the next one. I have friends who love these tweets and admire his willingness to "tell it like it is." Who doesn't admire political incorrectness on some level? More importantly, he has been keeping the attention of the American public focused on this campaign for over 15 months. Given the typical apathy of Americans regarding politics, this is no mean feat. Of course, there is plenty of fodder for not liking him, but that is not an argument for my candidate. Rather, let me state my case for supporting Hillary Clinton.
I know the Clintons have done some things with which I do not agree. They have been embroiled in some questionable behaviors and committed some deplorable mistakes. (Yes, I just used the word "deplorable"). But only Hillary Clinton is running for President today, so let me make a positive case for her. First, I am in awe of Hillary Clinton's many years of public service given the incredible scrutiny and downright hatred she has withstood. I agree with Bill Clinton's famous claim that budgets are not difficult, "It's just math," and Hillary's approach to the federal budget is similar. That's how most Americans balance their budgets each month without an advanced degree in economics. I not only agree with Hillary Clinton, specifically, and the Democrats, in general, on how to raise taxes, but I also agree about how to allocate those dollars in the federal budget. I support Hillary Clinton for President because you can see on her website that she has actual detailed plans on how to promote education, invest in our infrastructure, grow the economy, demonstrate care for future generations, support alternative energy projects, support our military, support common sense gun legislation, and strive for good relationships around the globe: https://www.hillaryclinton.com/feed/112-reasons-and-counting-hillary-clinton-should-be-our-next-president/
She will be strong when needed and will compromise when needed. I admire her strength and her dogged determination to do good for the American people.
So, you will notice that I have spent no time running down Trump, no time trying to defend the Clintons for the terrible mistakes they have made over the years. I just explain why I support Hillary by focusing on the values I share in common with her. During the last two semesters, I have been challenging my students to put forth positive arguments for their candidate instead of spending so much time repeating the negative claims about the opponent (which may or may not be true).
I advocate this course of action for two reasons. One, being Chair of an academic department I learned early on (fortunately) to praise and appreciate all the strengths of the wonderfully diverse faculty in my department and downplay any weaknesses. This attitude helped to create a strong and cohesive department as opposed to the typical academic department full of petty divisiveness. Of course, if someone breaks a rule or engages in unacceptable behavior then we must talk, directly, and come to the appropriate resolution. That was part of the job of being Chair--to hold people accountable. Similarly, if a political candidate crosses the line into illegal activity, we should trust that investigative journalism or the opposition party will bring it to light and the appropriate authorities will investigate and will prosecute as needed. We have processes in place to adjudicate such allegations and hold people accountable.
Two, I suggest you don't run around trying to tear down a person in an effort to garner support for your candidate. This usually turns people off rather than changing their minds. The reason it doesn't work to demonize people for their mistakes is because, who hasn't made mistakes? I learned this one while watching some of my fellow Democrats during the 2008 primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I was neutral on that one because I liked both candidates (and now I have probably lost more readers). I noticed that my Democratic acquaintances would tell me the "dirt" on the other candidate in an effort to convince me to support their candidate. Rarely did anyone tell me why the candidate they favored was the best choice. I know there is plenty of empirical evidence that negative campaigning works, but should we rely exclusively on that? Isn't this something we should at least try to minimize? We know that people lie, but does that mean that we SHOULD lie? I don't think so. Let's fight the tendency to lie and to rely so heavily on negative campaigning--and notice how often those two tendencies go together! Quite often negative stories about candidates are exaggerated to the point of outright lying.
This is my recipe for talking to those who disagree with you about your candidate and my hope for how we celebrate the good (that more Americans are talking about politics) and avoid the bad (road kill politics). Speak well of the opposing candidate (as much as you can) and speak well of your own. Overlook the dirt on both candidates. There is plenty of dirt on both sides, if you want to play there. But, inevitably, you get dirty as well.
So, in an effort to stay positive, I suggest to you my mother's sage advice, "If you cannot say anything nice, don't say anything at all." I recommend Brian Stelter's advice to "practice empathy" when listening to those who oppose your candidate. Finally, following Aristotle, continue to talk to those with opposing views and invite as many people to the dinner as possible. We are "stronger together."
(Note to CNN: As a logic professor, I am very sensitive to fallacies. They hurt my ears. So, I have begun to turn the channel when Ms. McEnany starts speaking. Can you please invite surrogates who employ good arguments rather than those who rely so heavily on fallacies? To her credit, she is a very passionate advocate for her candidate.)