The Cost of Speaking

The Cost of Speaking August 29, 2012

I try to be a nice person. Really I do. OK, it doesn’t always work, but I deeply believe in the practice of civility and respect toward all people. So I was genuinely sorry when a Facebook friend wrote to say that I had deeply offended her by questioning her integrity, and that we would no longer be friends. I wrote and apologized, but even as I was writing, I knew it was the kind of crappy apology that politicians are known for.
Here’s the thing. I didn’t just phrase something poorly and, as so often happens online, say something that I didn’t mean. She’s right. I did question her integrity. I accused her, I believe, of “being disingenuous at best.” That’s not a very nice thing to say, and I said it. I also meant it.

She is a Tea Party Republican. I am a liberal Democrat. And my faith tells me that that shouldn’t matter, that we share a common humanity. Before Facebook, it didn’t really matter, because our connection was through a shared hobby that has nothing to do with politics. But she is deeply committed to posting the kind of thing on Facebook that just makes me around-the-bend crazy.
Let me say this: there are many political subjects on which I think it is entirely a good thing that people disagree. There is such a thing as too much government and such a thing as not enough government, and people should argue their case about where the line of just enough government falls. Governments should both protect the rights of individuals and act for the common good, and sometimes those two values are in conflict. I believe society is better off when there is lively discussion about how to manage those two important values. There is no one right answer on a whole variety of contentious subjects.
But there are things that simply aren’t true. And when this Facebook friend used a line quoted out of context from a campaign speech Obama gave in 2008—a line in which he was calling for an expansion of the Peace Corps and diplomatic consulates—to declare that Obama was in cahoots with the New Black Panther Party to create an armed Black militia, I just couldn’t let it go. It seemed to me, and still seems to me, that there is no way to come to such a conclusion in a way that has a decent regard for facts, and if you choose to put something out in the world that you have no reason to believe is true, well, then I can’t help but think that you’re “disingenuous at best.” OK, lying.
So here’s the question: is it more important to preserve the human relationship and just let outrageous lies go past, or is it more important to stand up in a public forum and ask that people give some evidence for what they say? Which response is more ethical? Which more spiritual? Can you be genuinely spiritual without being ethical? Is it more respectful to call someone on behavior you think is inappropriate, or is it more respectful to make sure that feelings aren’t hurt, and relationships preserved?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I just know that this won’t be the last time in the next few months that I will have to choose. What I do know is that I can choose to make the political statements that I put out there in the world scrupulously honest, identifying what is fact and what is conviction, never resorting to name-calling or stereotype. This woman is no longer my Facebook friend, but I will be a better person if I allow her views and her feelings to remind me of what it means when I choose to speak.

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