LA Times this morning, Representative Emanuel Cleaver's modest and seemingly innocuous proposal to declare a national "complaint-free" day the day before Thanksgiving has been greeted by a small storm of protest and ridicule. Evidently, people are outraged by the suggestion that they should be encouraged to stop whining for even one day a year. Of course, the negative reaction to this harmless idea merely proves Representative Cleaver's point that there is too much polarization and pointless arguing in our society. But I'm pretty sure this irony is lost on those who have attacked his suggestion.
Of course, some of the negative reaction must be chalked up to partisan politics. Because it was a Democratic Congressman who made this suggestion to give whining a rest for a day, Republicans are probably suspicious of his motives. In addition, given that they are the opposition, they may believe they are threatened by the idea of encouraging too much good feeling. Had a Republican Congressman introduced the same resolution during the Bush administration, I have no doubt that many liberals would have denounced it for the same reasons.
But let's ask ourselves the larger questions. Why is it so important for us to preserve our right to attack and complain, every single day? Why is the idea of giving complaining a brief rest so threatening? Why do we need instinctively to greet every proposal with criticism, rather than to welcome new ideas and discuss them in an open way? If we really believe in our own principles and ideas, we should not feel so threatened by the ideas of others, that we need to attack them reflexively. At a mediation seminar I attended a couple of years ago, the instructor suggested the technique of responding to every proposal made by the other side with the comment, "That's an option." Even, or perhaps especially, if the idea is anathema to the other side, the first response by the mediator should still be "That's an option." That way all proposals can at least be put on the table for debate without undue rancor, permitting an open discussion of the merits and problems with each proposal. This technique actually works, and can be put in practice for even the most trivial of disputes. Let's say our family is trying to decide where to go out to dinner. If one member suggests Chinese food and is immediately greeted with attacks: "We just had Chinese food last week," "I'm tired of Chinese food," etc., etc., the response to all subsequent suggestions becomes predictably negative. The one who shot down the Chinese food idea might suggest going out for pizza instead, and will be immediately met with cries of "I don't feel like pizza;" "you chose the restaurant last time," etc., etc. If instead each suggestion is greeted with the response, "that's an option," then we can at least get all the ideas on the table in a constructive and non-threatening way before the debate starts.
Could our politicians learn to do this? Numerous examples exist of good ideas that have died in Congress because of partisan bickering. When President Nixon proposed a fairly liberal welfare plan, it was shot down by suspicious Democrats looking to score political points. President Clinton's fairly moderate health care plan was attacked viciously and made almost no progress in Congress. President Bush proposed immigration reform and Social Security reform. Although almost everyone agrees that we need both immigration reform and Social Security reform, all of Bush's proposals were greeted by storms of protest from left and right and needed reform was postponed. Similarly, President Obama is being attacked from all sides for his health care proposals, his economic reform proposals, and his foreign policy proposals. As a candidate, Obama ran on the idea of reducing this kind of partisan rancor. His nature is to bring all interested parties together and try to work out a consensus on every issue. Unfortunately, our nature instead seems to be to attack and criticize every suggestion, instead of welcoming new ideas as contributions to a valuable debate.
If we cannot even be open to the idea of putting aside the complaining for even one day, it will be difficult to tone down this debate.
(T-shirt design from nonoodling)