I’m thinking a lot about how to be a better American, now—no matter who you are.
I think it has to do with speaking our own minds, and taking pains to remind our audiences and ourselves that the truth we are speaking is just that: our own.
I’m thinking about it lately because I’m trying to figure out how Americans can continue to express ourselves without making our already enraged nation explode, without destroying our already strained relationships, even with politically like-minded friends.
I’m thinking that if we were born into a country this badly at odds—or if we knew we were born into a country this badly at odds—we would behave differently by instinct. And maybe the country would be less at odds.
For instance, wouldn’t it be better if we said, “This is what I think” rather than “this is the way it is?”
This is not a new thought. In fact, it’s one I used to reject, as phony and prissy.
My prudish dad used to admonish me to always preface an opinion with the words, “In my opinion.”
Yeah whatever, Dad. I thought that went without saying.
My first publisher, Larry Ragan, was one of the most authoritative writers I ever read. His writing voice had weight that would show up on a scale, and if you were going to argue with him, you’d better wear your work clothes and bring your tools. Yet, every word he published in the commanding column he wrote for a quarter century came under the humble heading, “As It Seems to Me.” If you read the column, which he hammered out weekly on a Royal manual typewriter that sounded under his fingers like a Gatling gun, you might have found “As It Seems to Me” to be disingenuous, or merely ceremonial—like touching gloves before a boxing match.
But looking back with wisdom of an older writer, I think of Larry’s column title as a real disclaimer, and actually a healthy jumping off point for anyone who wants to express an idea. If my first words are “as it seems to me,” I can speak of things I happen to know something about—professional football history, long-distance motorcycling, communication—and I’m likely to stick to aspects of those subjects that demonstrate my knowledge. But I can’t say, “as it seems to me, the early polling numbers in Wisconsin are skewed toward Biden.” Because what in the name of Richard Bong do I know about the political mood in Wisconsin, early polling numbers or math, for that matter? I might as well be opining about the price of palm oil in Sumatra.
More and more as they age, wise people know not only the limits of their expertise—but of their experience, too. They’ve been surprised so many times by an argument they hadn’t considered, an angle they hadn’t studied, a color filter they hadn’t seen through. Or just a human howl in a pitch they’d never heard before. Just as they know the smell of emotional dishonesty or intellectual plagiarism, wise people also know the sound of personal truth when they hear it coming out of other people’s mouths, even when it’s unfamiliar and strange and seems irreconcilable with their own frame of reference.
And it’s goddamned scary, running across people—especially fellow citizens of your country, members of your community, colleagues at your company, people in your own family who seem to hold honest views that you honestly can’t square with your own—that even threaten to delegitimize your own! And having faced that feeling many times before does not make it any less fearsome. And to the professional diversity, equity and inclusion consultant who tells us to “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” that same genteel old man of mine would reply, “I’ll make you uncomfortable in about two minutes!”
These days, pretty much no matter who you are, it seems you’re surrounded by people on all political sides who are lately “emboldened,” as we say, to express themselves in what seem like outrageous ways, in inappropriate settings, at deafening volume and without much consideration for how you feel, or what you’ve been through in your own life, or how good a human being you’ve tried to be over the years.
I’ve felt that fear and I’ve felt that anger. And I’ve forgiven myself those feelings. (And I’ll feel them again; and forgive myself again.)
I’m trying to listen better, yes. I’m trying to get quicker at feeling the fear and the anger and forgiving myself so I can listen.
But maybe even more mightily, I’m trying to make sure that when I speak, it’s clear to me and to you that I speak for myself.
“I think if I teach my child to keep an open mind and have ideas of his own,” my dad wrote in his book A Child to Change Your Life, “that I must teach him to preface his pronouncements with the words ‘in my opinion.’ For they will not only make is viewpoints more tolerable to others, but should serve as a healthy reminder to him, that just possibly, he might be wrong.”
A possibility—in fact, a probability—that all Americans ought to consider more often as each of us tries to determine who in this country we can communicate with, who we can’t, and how to know the difference.
As it seems to me.