Whoa to our runaway tongues
In May 1997, I was a reporter assigned to interview spiritual author Deepak Chopra, who upon meeting me asked whether I could drive him to where our interview would take place.
Great, I thought. More time to ask him questions. A reporter’s dream.
He seemed to bear no second thoughts as he crawled into my low-riding Saturn, and he barely raised an eyebrow at the mirror duct-taped to the passenger side of the car.
“Narrow garage,” I said.
“Ah,” he said, nodding.
I pulled onto Interstate 77 and hit the electronic button to close the windows so that we could more easily hear each other talk. I described what happened next in a story that ran on the cover of The Plain Dealer’s features section.
“Actually, my fingers are in the window,” he says calmly to a mortified reporter diving him during an interview and scrambling to free up Chopra’s hand.
“No, not that button,” he says as the driver’s window rolls down. “The other button would help.”
To this day, I marvel that I was the only one who screamed.
Chopra was seven years younger than I am now and light-years ahead of who I can only hope one day to be. If your goal in life is to navigate the world with civility – and I confess to harboring this ambition – then a good benchmark is the image of a calm Deepak Chopra asking you to release his fingers from a vise of your making.
I was reminded of that afternoon with Chopra through a confluence of recent events, which is how memory tends to work. I was condensing several boxes of newspaper clippings from my past – how is it that a year after we moved, I still have a garage full of these? – when I stumbled upon my story about Chopra. That was fun, reading those first two paragraphs aloud to my mortified husband.
Two days later, I was disheartened by commentary on social media blasting Mitt Romney for lovingly praising his wife, Ann, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago and had just celebrated the opening of a new hospital wing dedicated to the disease and named for her.
I was a frequent critic of Romney’s, in columns and in TV commentary, throughout the 2012 presidential race, but I viewed his public post as a grateful husband’s tribute to his wife. I was taken aback by the number of fellow liberals on social media who not only disagreed but also read only cynical intentions in his words.
A shorthand summary: Whew.
Rage deafens us, not just to opposing viewpoints but to ourselves. I’ve often thought that if we had to argue in front of a mirror, we’d stop as soon as we got a good look at ourselves. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of that.
The next morning, still churning about the Romney reaction, I posted a simple question on my public Facebook page: How would you define civility?
In the ensuing responses, one of my former colleagues referred to Chopra’s sense of calm. That’s what triggered my memory of our long-ago exchange and got me to thinking about my own frustrations with our current political climate.
We’re a country full of big ideas and, ever so steadily, an even bigger sense of our own rightness. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics. Poll after poll shows that we’re increasingly polarized, with no real solutions in sight.
In the past few days, I’ve tuned in to C-SPAN to watch a number of the televised Senate debates, which illustrate all too vividly the toxicity of an uncivil tongue. I say this as a wife of a U.S. senator and as a citizen who believes that all candidates who want to live at taxpayers’ expense should have to reveal their unscripted selves in debate.
This is a bipartisan affliction, no doubt. Every opening statement, it seems, is about how delighted they are to be there, and then the conversation U-turns down the lowest road in the valley.
What most struck me this round was how all the Republican candidates for Senate seem to be running against President Barack Obama. How odd, when he will be president for only two years of the winners’ six-year terms.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in his debate with Sen. Mark Pryor, said “Obama” 74 times in a 90-minute debate. There were four candidates in this debate. Allowing for six minutes of moderator questions, that means Cotton mentioned Obama every 17 seconds.
Somewhere along the way, the word “debate” has come to mean “to hell with issues; let’s just throw globs of mud and see people still willing to vote might choose based on which candidate didn’t make them throw up in their mouths. More than a little, I mean.
In the interest of civility, I’ll stop there. For now.
Editor’s note: Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist.