We are living in the postmodern era. One manifestation of postmodernism is the juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible cultural forms (e.g., Hamilton, combining the Broadway musical with hip-hop). Often, these inventive juxtapositions are entertaining in an ironic or satirical way. Sometimes, they become more, supplanting established cultural forms and creating new ones.
In politics, I think we are seeing just such an unexpected combination emerge in extreme political rhetoric. Communication styles that once were parodied are now cultivated.
Consider President Trump’s first international trip as president. The trip has been described as “great,” “phenomenal,” and “historic” by advocates, “disastrous,” “destabilizing” and “an utter failure” by critics.
More nuanced (and probably more accurate) accounts are out there, but the extremes get the airplay.
Extreme expressions are not unique to national leaders and media outlets.
I have a friend whose life is lived in the superlative. A meeting was “great.” An event was “phenomenal.” Nothing good is merely good; it is “awesome.”
I also have a friend whose skepticism has morphed into total disdain for moral claims. Courage, integrity and heroism are mere decorative coverings over self-interested motives or psychological disorders.
At certain times, each of these friends can prove invaluable. The first helps me lift my head when I’ve crashed and burned. The second grounds me when I’m flying too high. But neither helps me find my equilibrium.
What I need for that is someone who I neither dazzle nor disgust, who sees neither all things good nor all things evil, but all things. Someone who witnesses my best moments and still sees flaws, my worst moments and still sees potential. And someone who, when the need arises and the time is right, will prompt me to reflect on those neglected truths.
Nations need such people, too: loyalists and patriots unafraid to be critical when warranted, critics whose fierce loyalty is the very reason their critique may be harsh. Such people know what we as a nation are made of, all of it, and are unafraid to acknowledge each facet, turn by turn, to steady our course.
In this era of extremes, perhaps we need an extreme version of such people. Perhaps it is necessary to go to unreasonable lengths to entertain an idea put forward by an extremist, to give it more than its due, in order to earn the right to be heard when offering a competing interpretation.
There is danger here, to be sure. Some things simply are false; some things are clearly evil. If you or I allow what is clearly false the possibility of truth, what is clearly evil the possibility of good, are we providing more oxygen for the destructive forces that already seem to suffocate constructive discussion?
But I also have acquaintances for whom the price of admission into a serious conversation is to take their view seriously. And to be fair, that’s probably true of me, too, at least regarding some things.
If we actually listen to extreme declarations, we just might gain insight and, at least on occasion, the right to respond. Having listened seriously, we might also have something worth saying, something that might help the booster or the cynic see a more complete picture, too. Maybe, with patience and extreme understanding, our nation can find true peace.