It’s an easy thing to get caught up in the idea that civility is basically cerebral. But as the past week has shown, its emotional reality is vitally important, too.
About a week ago, on January 5th, in a speech in which he announced some executive orders regarding gun control, President Obama shed very public tears as he spoke about the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he said, with a crescendo of emotion, was stripped from first-graders in Newtown. First-graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. And then, wiping tears from his eyes, he told us: every time I think about those kids it gets me mad.
The President’s tears remind us that though it is not common, displays of raw emotion among American officials have become a part of the landscape of our political culture. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, famous for his tears, once told a reporter that there are just some things that tug at me. He said that he can’t go to schools while campaigning. All of those little sweet kids, I’m a mess. And in 2012, as he discussed the resignation of Representative Gabrielle Giffords – who had herself been the victim of a mass shooting – he appeared to fight back tears on ABC’s Sunday show, This Week:
“I’ve never quite seen a farewell in the House like this,” he said. “A bipartisan effort, all the members were there. A sad day for the House.”
“But, a very brave lady,” Boehner added, choking up.
Progressives, over the years, have made fun of John Boehner’s publicly emotional style, producing lists of instances of tearful moments, or turning his quivering lip into online memes. And similarly, some conservative pundits this week called into question Obama’s sincerity, wondering – among other things – if he had a raw onion hidden behind his podium. Actor James Woods, on Twitter, suggested that the President’s were #CrocadileTears.
But the fact is that tears are powerful, and it behooves us to take them seriously. As Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald says of President Obama’s speech: one grows used to thinking of politics as a craft practiced mostly by people who are only technically human – who are automatons programmed to court votes by any means, including cynical ones. But that’s not the reality. This moment destroyed that perception, he writes. The president wept and it was a starkly human thing.
Institute President and co-founder Cassandra Dahnke has made a similar observation. Tears show us that our public figures are more than politicians or lawmakers or position holders, she responded when asked about the significance of the President’s emotional moment. They are people – and while they are in unique positions, they aren’t any different from the rest of the us.
And that sameness is significant. That sameness highlights one of the core emotional realities necessary to have civility at all: empathy. Tears and other expressions of emotion are outward signs of internal connection. They are part of an economy of emotions that we all – at our best – share between us: the idea that my happiness depends on yours, and that when you suffer, I cannot help but suffer, too.
We often think of this sort of empathy as a feature of art and drama, but it is also the basis of our ability to engage in inclusive politics. Empathy allows us to respect others and make room for their feelings and needs – to make our footprint smaller so they can have space, too. When President sheds tears for the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he acknowledges that in some measure the pain of those deaths – the families’ grief and loss – is his pain, grief, and loss. And that connection opens the possibility of acknowledging and balancing conflicting needs.
In the speech, President Obama plainly states: I believe in the Second Amendment. He supports the right to bear arms. But empathy informs an acknowledgment that even where rights are concerned, there is no such thing as absolute good. He tells us this with words when he says that we all believe in the First Amendment … but we accept that you can’t yell “fire” in a theater. And he tells us again with his actions – when he cries.
Does this mean that his tears are a calculated political ploy, as folks like James Woods have suggested? No. But as John Boehner can surely attest, emotional displays need not be calculated to be rhetorically and politically significant.
In both cases – the President’s and the former Speaker of the House’s – tears get to the very personal layer that underlies our politics, the reason we have a political process at all. The fact that I have needs and beliefs that require acknowledgment and respect is basically emotional. And via empathy, my ability to accommodate the needs and beliefs of others is basically emotional, too.
So what we see when our elected officials shed tears amounts to a peek behind the curtain. In tears, their most human selves break through. And in these moments of humanity is the potential for a more civil politics: one that understands that our well-being is interconnected, and that negotiates public policy accordingly.