Where Common Decency Crumbled, and It’s Not Where You Think

01/20/2017 11:27 am ET | Updated Jan 20, 2017

I grabbed a kosher beer from the refrigerator and then found my chair in the back of the hushed room just before the first presidential debate. Now was not the time to ask what made a kosher beer kosher. Now was not the time to say anything except, “I’m with her.”

My very Jewish, very liberal friend, Meira, had invited me to her debate-watching party along with what looked like 15 other white, Jewish, liberal, white collar young professionals I’d never met before. I scanned the room in search of someone, anyone else holding a kosher beer. There were none. Instead, I saw plates topped with classic types of Jewish food. You know, the ones in which the dominant macronutrient is the carbohydrate, which I only eat before exercising and drinking. But not before drinking kosher beer.

I uncapped my drink and tried concentrating on the television, but brilliant little LED displays flashed around the room and distracted me. Everyone else was on their phones.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to Meira.

“I’m live-tweeting the debate,” she said quietly. “And some other people are tracking FiveThirtyEight. It updates like every 15 seconds.”

I may have fit in with this group on paper, but I felt out of place.

From my perspective from the back of the room, the sight remained consistent for the entire 90-minute debate: phones, food, and no other kosher beers except the second I snatched for myself. The difference was in the sounds. The room erupted in applause when Clinton made one of her many assertive and clear statements. And when Trump completed any statement, there was a mixture of sighs, murmurs, and howls of disgust.

Trump said plenty to warrant that reaction. He interrupted Clinton and the moderator, Lester Holt, over 50 times and made statements that, if I took him literally instead of through the lens of entertainment, would make me wonder if my insane seventh-grade world history teacher grew 15 inches and got a sex change.

But Trump also made some valuable statements. It can seem easy to dismiss everything he says, but anyone who has a thousand ideas a day, who manufactures ideas at 3 a.m. when others are sleeping, is bound to nail a couple. When first speaking about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Trump basically said that other countries aren’t pulling their weight in the alliance and that he thinks they should.

Everyone in my room looked up from their phones and complained at his horrible idea. I thought that concept sounded fair.

When Trump mentioned Chicago (which had 4,368 shooting victims in 2016), I interpreted him generally -- not literally -- as suggesting we should do what we can to make the city safer. Chicago is among my favorite cities and I’ll debate Giordano's vs. Lou Malnati's Pizzeria with you any day, and the concept that we should ensure fewer people get shot there made sense to me.

My room flared like a thousand burning bushes.

At the end of the debate, I wanted to discuss these topics with Meira and the others. I wanted to ask them why they thought fairness in our global alliances and fairness across our chosen places of residence were such bad ideas. I approached Meira, who was collecting the empty plates and muttering curse words. I opened my mouth to speak. And then I shrinked. I could feel the groupthink energy of the room and thought that if I even suggested anything Trump said was plausible, Meira would escort me right past her mezuzah and banish me from her home forever. So, when I opened my mouth to speak I just said, “Thanks for having me over. Goodnight.”

When I returned to my apartment that September night, I needed help understanding what was happening. I didn’t get it. I sort of understood why individuals on one side of the political spectrum feared the other side, and vice versa. But, I didn’t get how individuals feared other individuals on the other side of the spectrum, or even someone who simply tried to see arguments from multiple perspectives, like me.

I consulted with my future-lawyer roommate, who was four years younger than me and 400 times more intuitive about human reasoning. My roommate thought some people attribute an individual’s ideas about politics to the individual. As in, I hate your idea so therefore I hate you. That pretty much only happens in politics and religion, my roommate said. “People should have the capacity to debate the viewpoint and not attack the person for having the viewpoint.”

“That’s beautiful,” I said.

“I’d like to call it common decency.”

Between the first debate and the election, I saw virtual assaults and even predictions of future virtual assaults. Several friends’ Facebook posts included their political beliefs followed by something like, “Feel free to unfriend me,” or prefaced by, “I know people will unfriend me for saying this.” Two people who had been friends for 30 years seemingly became enemies because one openly voted for Clinton and the other voted for Trump. Of all the terrible things that occurred during this election season, that saddened me the most.

I finally understood weeks after the election when I flew to Chicago for a family event. I approached the airline's customer service desk to learn how I could bypass the line and get on the flight early due to my disability.

“Do you need help getting on the aircraft?” the woman behind the counter said.

“No.”

“Do you need a specific seat?”

“No.”

“Then you have to wait in line.”

Of all the reasons someone may need to board a plane early, answering “Yes” to one of those two was the only path to success. Not that I often use crutches because my cancer-ridden left hip bone was removed when I was 17, or that the now bone-on-bone contact sometimes causes a spike in arthritis. So I said, “Let me try that again,” and I answered “Yes” to needing a specific seat. I lied. I boarded early.

When discussing politics, people have similar dealbreaker questions that define how they view others.

Do you hate people because of their color?

No.

Should women have the same rights and opportunities as men?

Yes.

Great start.

But then, things can get off track.

Are you going to vote for Trump?

Maybe.

OK you’re a bad person. Get out of my life, get off my feed.

I have 1,498 friends on Facebook. I’m curious how many I’ll have next week.

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