How could he insult me, unprovoked, for the second time this year? He can’t really be this upset, I thought, reading a smug and angry (smangry?) comment to a joke I posted on Twitter. I mean, this isn’t some random troll—it’s my cousin. How did we get here? Why?
Because of Donald Trump, that’s why.
Since 2016 we’ve all read about family reunions stressed, friendships tested, and social media relationships obliterated because of the man who occupies the presidency. Today, I felt it keenly. I’ve only muted or “un-friended” two people in my entire social media history of 12+ years. One was a relative who made an outrageously homophobic slur. And today– my own cousin.
It hurts my heart that someone with whom I’ve shared genes and family dinners would set out to insult me. Publicly. But like too many people these days who react emotionally to opposing political views, the insult felt personal and on purpose. My cousin has become very sensitive to criticism of Trump. And on this historic day that the House impeached the president, I made a tame observational joke on Twitter:
“When history asks Tulsi Gubbard where she was when the House voted to impeach Trump, she will be able to say, loudly and clearly, “There!”
Not much of a joke, frankly. (WA-wa.) It had a shelf life of maybe 30 minutes. And note– it wasn’t even an attack on Trump. I don’t generally say a lot about the president on social media. It’s boring. There’s so much more interesting material to talk about. Like pants.
But my tweet raised some hackles. I will not reprint his reply, as I would never do so without permission, and I ain’t asking for permission. In short, he defended Tulsi and insulted the Democratic leadership with not particularly clever, off-color nicknames.
This is disappointing and upsetting because I love debate. I think back to life at Trinity College in the ‘80s and the great debates that happened in classes, and likely less great but just as entertaining back-and forths late at night with friends. I especially remember one debate where, after a good half hour, an exasperated challenger finally said “YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY BELIEVE THAT!” and I responded, “Of course I don’t.”
The debate was the point.
Debate is to civics as testing is to the scientific method. Positions need to be examined for logic and merit, and public discourse is the “bench research” that generates data that lead to solid conclusions. Testing works well in a lab because the conditions are controlled (and because lab rats don’t ask you who you voted for). However, we have lost any attempt at control, or the ability to debate properly. Instead, debate has become argument. People are throwing lab rats against the wall and insisting rodents can fly.
Insults and arguments are the enemy of debate. True debate leaves both parties smarter. I may not agree with your position at the end but, dammit, I hope I learned more than when we started. Even if no new facts were uncovered, I now know something about you and your worldview. And that enriches me. Debate is at the core of this country. The great Enlightenment thinkers’ debates led to our founding documents. They didn’t sit around calling each other “Wacky John Locke” and “Fathead Thomas Hobbes.” Then again, they didn’t have Twitter.
I hope the children and young adults are learning the art of debate in schools and on college campuses. I hope they are engaging in better exchanges than what is being demonstrated on cable news channels and in Facebook comment threads. We have to learn how to disagree respectfully. We cannot continue divided, launching “smangry” comments into the ether, and harming our relationships with each other. To do so is to declare failure on the American Experiment. And that is the most important theory being tested right now. Insults and party-line adherence at all costs will only speed our failure.