When Bill and Laura Glasner displayed an American flag upside-down at their Victor residence as a statement of distress at the impending presidency of Donald Trump, they must have realized that it would be a provocative action.
And provoke it did. Before too long, the flag, which had been tacked firmly to the residence, had been removed by force. The Glasners reported the crime and eventually replaced it with another flag — also hung in the traditional mode for distress according to the U.S. Flag Code — in a wooden frame bolted to the house.
Some would scoff and ask, “What did they expect?” — noting that any expression of a controversial opinion is bound to garner strong reactions, so people had better be willing and ready to take the ensuing heat. A provocative statement, by definition, provokes.
While that’s true to a point, one might think that what would be provoked would be questions, conversations, dialogue between people attempting to understand others’ points of view and offer their own in the spirit of respectful discourse. Instead, too often a controversial expression — or indeed, any expression, is often met with attempts to silence, as with the Glasners’ flag, or with ridicule, disdain and/or hostility.
We see it every election cycle when people find their candidate signs torn down. We see it on social media, where people give snap, instant judgment to statements expressed without taking the time to formulate a real argument — as if a real argument would fit in, say, a 140-character limit on Twitter. We see it here at the Messenger when people send in handwritten screeds blasting us for a cartoon or syndicated column published on the opinion page — even though it’s clearly labeled “opinion” and that page is known for including a wide, diverse spectrum of voices, conservative, liberal and other.
By and large, unless it’s something we want to hear, we don’t listen, we react. We don’t engage with the intricacies of someone’s argument; we’re too busy composing a blistering, biting response. And so we’re left with a polarized nation, a state of affairs everyone bemoans but few seem to know how to do anything about, because it requires being able to take others’ ideas and input seriously enough to consider rather than dismiss. The president-elect’s penchant for responding to criticism and adversity with angry or snarky tweets isn’t particularly comforting on this front.
If we truly want to be a “United States,” if our bemoaning of polarization is to be more than idle talk, then the first thing to do is to listen to one another — to truly listen, without dismissing the subject or the source, and intelligently evaluate the arguments and respond thoughtfully, with carefully constructed arguments of one’s own, shared with mutual respect. In other words, don’t just rip down someone’s flag — whatever that flag in their life or words happens to be — ask them about it. And listen. And share your own view. Maybe you’ll give each other something to think about.
And maybe if we do more thinking and less reacting, our eventual actions will be both smarter and kinder. Whether in Victor or on Capitol Hill.