Support is growing for the idea of bipartisan seating at the upcoming State of the Union address on January 25. The idea proposed by Third Way, a moderate Democratic think-tank, could end the 200-year-old tradition of showcasing our political divide by cheers or jeers from either side of the aisle.
A Republican-Democrat-Republican-Democrat seating chart in no way glosses over genuine differences of opinion, nor does it guarantee we won't see another episode of shouting "You lie!" during the speech, as South Carolina representative Joe Wilson did in 2009. But does that make the proposal unhelpful?
In kindergarten, teachers make children apologize after a classroom brawl over building blocks or toy trucks. Are the kids really sorry? Does the apology end all future brawls? No.
Yet the teachers do it because they know that civility begins somewhere, even if that somewhere is two five-year olds glaring at each other and muttering, "I'm sorry."
Walking the path deepens the tracks, but the path doesn't exist until someone first walks it.
Civility begins with breaking old patterns, even the simplest ones. What if those that represent us could take one night off from confirming what we already know -- that they do not agree? What if they could offer one gesture of the open hand to their neighbors on the other side of the aisle?
Better yet, since most members of the U.S. Congress like to be known as God-loving (or God-fearing, depending on your tradition) people, what if they thought of this in terms of the Golden Rule?
Jesus said, "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31). This same rule appears in various forms in other religions, and is commonly appealed to today by secular humanists. It is a rule we all (theoretically) could get behind. How would the world change if we began each interaction with our neighbors by asking the question, "Is this how I want to be treated?"
All it takes to become better neighbors is to ask this world-recognized and essentially self-centered question. Surely we can do that.
This question does not eliminate healthy debates or passionate conversations; it simply helps to humanize others. Taking this step forward, however, requires a will. Robert Frost said that "good fences make good neighbors"; but he also said, "something there is that doesn't love a wall." What if the symbolic wall, or aisle in this case, gets in the way of what should be the standard for civility?
As an instructor in the field of religion, I know this: when persons of other faiths sit together to ask each other questions, with only the intent of understanding one-another rather than proselytizing or defeating the other, they learn that the other person they demonized is not as bad as they thought. They learn something about themselves, about how easy it is to paint an ugly picture of someone else. They learn that despite their differences -- no matter how big they may be -- they can work together for their communities, because, after all, that is something they share.
This is the lesson personified in Egypt recently when Coptic Christians, in churches receiving bomb threats, were protected by their Muslim neighbors during Christmas services. This unexpected and admirable behavior sent a message.
On the other hand, I've been present when religious leaders, congregating with like-minded souls, have turned to ugly conversation in which "the others" outside of their camps were objects of suspicion. In other words, groupthink settles in and reasonable conversation gets locked out of the room. This is where a runaway, heightened rhetoric comes in to play, a tool that both sides of the aisle find useful when so-called rational arguments remain unconvincing. It galvanizes, but at a cost.
Do we want our country to be known for this? I don't.
The Golden Rule is the first step toward a better culture of words. Perhaps this small gesture of sitting down next to one's neighbor can become another great American symbol of unity to cherish. It would be wonderful if this change began in Congress.
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