“Going High” With Others

. May 31, 2019.
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The lessons we must learn on the playground and on Capitol Hill

It was during the Democratic National Convention in 2016, when Michelle Obama was giving a great speech, reflecting on how people should carry themselves in our current political climate. She referred to a lesson she tries to teach her children whenever negative talk and rudeness comes at them, she said: “When they go low, we go high.” That line has stuck with me. The former First Lady summed up so much of what I believe about how we should interact, how we are supposed to treat each other, how we should carry ourselves. How do we want our children to behave? It’s really that simple.

So, why do we continue to put up with low levels of civility from our elected leadership in this country? We all know the truth is: if our children came home from school talking about one of their classmates the way we see the players in this Civil War of Words go after each other, we would set them straight, telling them that is not the way to treat their fellow human beings. What do we say to our children? And how does what we would say to our children inform what we should say to those claiming to represent us in our government?

Let’s define “Go High”

First, we need to clearly and intentionally define what it means to “go high.” We all know what it feels like when someone “goes low.” They stoop to a level of making something personal. They act out and name call, trying to diminish another person with their words and behavior. Do we actually know what it means to respond on a “higher” plane? We need to spell it out for our children. We must teach them the power of silence. We must give them the strength of understanding their value is not connected to their ability to “get even.” We have to teach our kids the deep moral lesson of standing up for their brother and sister, but not raising their fist in defense of their own ego.

Hold up the mirror

Perhaps the most discouraging thing I have seen from my own political party since President Trump was elected, was how infrequently we actually take Michelle Obama’s advice. It feels like that lesson was good for a bumper sticker in 2016, but once President Trump was inaugurated, we forgot all about it. In this moment of history, filled with toxic talk and dehumanizing rhetoric, we have to hold up the mirror and find self-awareness. Can we acknowledge when we make mistakes? Can we, with our children, own up to not “going high” when someone else goes low? We need to, and we have to learn from it when it happens.

More Than Not “Playing Dirty”

It could be easy to read this column and walk away thinking of things we shouldn’t do. But, the harder task, the more important task, is to think of what we should do. We have come to define sportsmanship, integrity, and many other aspects of character by not doing something. We need to think about the actions that make up the character we want to exhibit in the world. What are the things we want our children to do, say, believe and act out? Those are the things we need to focus on and we need to teach our children to behave this way, before they even have a reason to “go high” in the first place.

None of this is easy, but if we can’t up the level of conversation and compassion and understanding in our own homes, how will we ever do it in our communities and cities? If we can’t do it in our cities, how will things change in our state, and if things don’t change in our state, what will come of the collection of our States? We must be united in our desire for more humane politics and, like most things, if we can teach it to our kids, hopefully we can expect it of their elected leaders as well.