One day I was walking on a golf course when I heard a voice yell, “You idiot!”
As it turned out it was a professional golfer, a woman who had just missed a putt and was demonstrably unhappy with herself.
It is a phrase I have used on a golf course often. It seems that I am not alone. I hit a poor shot. I miss an easy chip. Those are things all golfers do, but not all who play feel the need to announce their criticism so clearly.
It was only me
As I noted above, the “You idiot!” attack in my case was always from me and directed at me. I wouldn’t dream of saying anything like that to my partner in a golf match, no matter how terrible the shot.
For some time I used that as a way to justify my own bad behavior. I wasn’t hurting anyone else, went my faulty reasoning.
Au contraire, as they say in France, and even America, which means “to the contrary.”
By berating myself loudly and openly I was teaching myself that these words were OK, that my behavior was acceptable. At the same time I was demeaning myself and setting a bad example for anyone who happened to witness it.
The more I did it, the more easily the next one came. As a word or behavior becomes “normal,” it is increasingly easier to use in other situations with different circumstances.
So it wasn’t only me — there were ripples, or at least possible ripples, and once the sound was out there it was out there. I could not stop the flight or the effect of my words.
One of those effects, as I mentioned, was making the words easier to use in different circumstances.
So when a political leader makes a statement that is clearly incorrect, it is but the work of a moment for me to say, “What an idiot.” I’ve practiced on myself, after all.
But now it is not only me, it is some other human being. Of course I don’t think of them as a human, I think of them as wrong.
Interestingly, if I use a label like “idiot” for them it helps me dehumanize them, and that is a whole new problem.
In the world of politics, ad hominem attacks have been a staple for centuries. The phrase literally means “to the man,” and by definition is an attack against a person rather than against some position the person holds.
From a politician’s point of view it makes sense. People tend to vote for people they like and use positions on various topics as justification for their vote. Likeability is one of the strongest characteristics a politician can cultivate. Sometimes they do that by attacking their opponent, hoping to make him or her less likeable.
One of the fascinating things about Donald J. Trump in this regard is that he is polarizing when it comes to likeability. Joe Biden has moved in that same direction, where people like him a lot or dislike him deeply.
As you read that previous paragraph, I know you could feel welling up inside some dislike for one or the other — or even both — of those men. That’s what ad hominem attacks do, and they are so effective that many have (mostly negative) visceral reactions when they hear the names Biden or Trump.
Going back in America to the presidential election of 1800, people had the same visceral reactions when they heard the names Adams and Jefferson. The two former friends (very, very good friends) ran against each other for President of the United States.
They had done that four years earlier, with Adams winning a narrow victory against Jefferson. Now they would face off again. History.com says, “The 1800 election still stands as one of the nastiest in history.”
Not only did their supporters have special names to call the opponent, but “Jefferson hired a sleazy journalist, James Callendar, to smear Adams in the press, including the (false) story that he wanted to start a war with France.”
Can you imagine that? A political candidate used the press to spread false allegations against the opponent!
Jefferson won that election, Adams refused to attend the inauguration, and the two “would not exchange another word for 12 years.”
What are the alternatives?
Leaving the world of politics behind, and hoping we survived it, let us apply these same ideas to other areas of life.
Driving a car, for instance. Personally I’m astonished at how many cars are on the road without working turn signals.
I’ll stop being snarky now, but it seems there are a lot of (ahem) folks who drive poorly if not dangerously.
In fact any place on the planet where people interact with other people is ripe for someone calling someone an idiot. So let me suggest a couple of different ways to respond that might be lost in the back of our minds, stuffed down there by the ease of calling people idiots.
First, in the area of politics, if you must attack then attack the position rather than the person. No, it is not OK to say “only an idiot would take that position.”
This is much more work than ad hominem attacks, but it is far superior in the end.
Second, and this is the ultimate answer, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
That’s all from Jesus, the greatest moral teacher of all time. He ends that section with a nice catch-all you’ve probably heard: Do to others as you would like them to do to you.
Ahhh! That feels better.
With great help from Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson reconciled. They became close again, and they died just hours apart on July 4, 1826. It was the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.