“Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.” (Samuel Johnson)
When you wake up on the morning of November 7 and tune in to the full nationwide election results, will you be heartened or dejected? Unless you have a reliable crystal ball, you’re going to have to live with that uncertainty for a few more days. We all are.
But while we wait, there’s one critically important task we can undertake: we can decide how we’re going to respond—win or lose. We need to ask this question now, before we know the outcome, before we know if we are on the winning side or the losing side. It’s unlikely that any of us will see exactly the outcome we hope for in every race, or that anyone will see defeat on every front. But how we respond—as individuals and as a nation—will set the tone for us as we move ahead. In a very real sense, our collective response will either fortify or weaken our democracy.
If the election doesn’t go your way…
Can you accept loss and move on to pursue unity as a nation? Do you even want to? This isn’t about capitulating on your values or beliefs, or even giving up on peaceful protest, but taking loss with grace and looking for common ground as you continue to advocate for your convictions. Do you have the personal strength of will to do that?
If your side is victorious…
Equally important, if you end up in the winning column, can you be gracious in victory? Can you resist the impulse to gloat or do a happy dance as despondent voters watch? As good as that may feel in the moment, it will serve only to divide us further. Do you have the personal strength to withhold smug righteousness and squelch any impulse to humiliate the other side?
In these polarized times, we need to remember that name-calling, blaming, gloating, and put-downs will be hurtful. They will push buttons that almost guarantee resentment, anger, and further conflict. Think about what you want to see in the next two years:
- Our democracy eaten away by distrust, vulgarity, and incivility . . . and an ever-widening divide?
- Or civility, respect, and the advancement of politicians who will behave with these values?
Civility and compassion are not weak. It takes strength to accept loss and move forward with resolve rather than bitterness. It takes strength not strike back when our buttons are pushed or our values are derided. It takes strength to recognize the pain someone else may be feeling and not belittle those feelings or dismiss their right to grieve.
Committing to civil or kind responses makes us neither snowflakes nor quitters. It means we still have hope that our country and its citizens value respect and democratic principles, and that we can work together to restore what we’ve lost and repair what’s broken.
So how do I respond?
Put yourself in the other person’s place and imagine how they’re feeling. Saying something like, “I know you must be disappointed and hurting. I hope when the time is right we can talk about our differences and look for some common ground,” opens a door for constructive conversation. Even something as simple as, “I’m sorry you’re hurting. Let’s get together for coffee next week,” sets a tone for cooperation.
What if people—whether they win or lose—don’t want to engage civilly?
First, we need to differentiate between people who don’t want to engage civilly and those who aren’t ready. The latter may need more time to process their loss, to think about how to regroup and what comes next. We need to honor their need.
But, there are and will be people who deliberately want to promote incivility and conflict. For whatever reasons, they seek to widen the divide between us and sow more discord. Whether their side wins or loses, they will yell the loudest, engage in put-downs and name-calling, and continue to disparage the other side. It is not to their advantage to see our wounds heal. Their knives remain sharp and poised for the kill.
Nowhere does it say we need to engage with such individuals. They thrive on spreading conflict and spewing hate. They revel in disharmony. We’re not going to change such people. Arguing and engaging with them fuels them; it’s just what they want. Instead, turn and walk away. Deny them the thing they want most: attention. Use your time and energy to engage with people who share a desire to restore civility despite the differences we may have.
Don’t look to the politicians or pundits to lose—or win—with grace. They’re going to be gloating in victory and blaming in defeat. It’s up to us to model what constructive behavior looks like and to demand it of our elected officials.
If we wait to think about these things until we see the results of the election, it will be too late. These are decisions we need to make in advance and conversations we need to start now.
We have to ask ourselves today, before we know the outcome of the election: Do we want a united country? Are we still capable of coming together productively and positively to address the complex issues that have divided us?
Who will you choose to be on November 7? Your answer is critical to our future.
“The times it’s most important to be kind are often when it’s hardest to be kind.” (Donna Cameron)