Where have you seen hospitality practiced amid conversations about presidential candidates?
The activist in me remembers that there is a time to identify with the biblical prophets, especially those like Amos who were angry about exploitation of the poor and shallow, self-centered behavior among leaders. I am among those who protest a misguided war with Iraq, who are disturbed by our current leadership’s indifference to civil liberties, who worry often that we are not spending nearly enough time getting to know peoples and lifeways in other parts of the world. This election year, I feel more clearly than usual that one candidate for president is far more in keeping with globally-sensitive human values than the other one appears to be (even if I also sense my favored candidate’s frailty and sensitivity to criticism). But I also find myself thinking, more and more, that I do not want to confuse activism that holds leaders accountable with the tone and presence we need in daily conversations with people whose identities and allegiances differ radically from our own–politically and in the whole of their lives.
Polarized feelings surface during presidential election years because our identifications with one or another party or candidate make bare a genuine enmity among neighbors–the fact that something one side finds a vital necessity, another side cannot see (or belittles, or ignores). HERE is where prophetic activism needs tempering by a listening spirit of hospitality.
I listened to Sarah Palin’s Republican convention speech and found myself responding at many levels. I was aghast that she so blithely dismissed concern for the civil liberties of Guantanamo prisoners, openly mocked the job of community organizing (playing on uninformed prejudices about it), and voiced no concern (in my memory) for the lives and perspectives of anyone other than Americans (and a select set of Americans at that). But as someone from the U.P. who grew up playing street hockey and having days off from school for deer hunting season, I also identified with her reactive defense of those who are readily mocked by the urban and urbane Democratic intellectual elite in which Obama (and I myself, too) am at home. And my high school debating experience honed the practice a habitual sort of hospitality–one that instinctively crafts arguments from many points of view–so that I found myself listening appreciatively to how Sarah Palin and her speech consultants were rhetorically crafting a person and a message.
Then a person to whom I’m becoming close called to discuss her speech. He is a socially liberal Republican, and he was impressed with her energy and style and the cleverness in the speech. He could readily acknowledge the things I found disturbing, and I could acknowledge that there is a case to be made for a willingness to talk respectfully with foreign leaders while also having the potential of military strength in the picture (I’d only wished the best conservative arguments could have been made in as nuanced a way as he was making them).
Then, the next day, a number of my colleagues and students simply said that they could not finish watching Sarah Palin’s speech, that it was “awful,” “horrible,” too disturbing to continue to be subjected to. And I felt surprised (and realized what “knee jerk liberal” can mean). I think a myopic nationalism is immensely dangerous, but that is hardly all that was going on in Sarah Palin’s speech–or in those who feel she speaks for them in a way Obama cannot (each side feeling marginalized in their core in some way by the other).
So–I suspect the picture I’m drawing is fairly clear. What kinds of hospitality of listening is good to practice while listening to campaign speeches, and while talking with our neighbors about them? How do we build bridges–and why?
I do not doubt that the practice of hospitality matters a lot here–and a hospitality that does not make nice, avoid, or paper over deep differences. We need a hospitality that listens in multiple directions at once, and offers the gift of our own weighted voice as well.