Sunday, April 8, 2012

Backbone and the Benefit of the Doubt: Things I Learned From My Dad

I've just been engaged in a polite Facebook debate about whether a certain politician is the sort of hateful racist who throws the n-word around. The man's politics absolutely repel me, but I defended him on this issue, saying I don't think the evidence is strong enough to accuse him of something that nasty. Part of the response was, "I'm a little surprised that you're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."

I was a little surprised myself.  Not so much that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that I spoke up and defended him in the first place. I normally would have held my peace. The reason I spoke up, I realized, is that it was my Dad's birthday.

Let me explain. I had been feeling especially appreciative of Dad all week. Last weekend, I had the privilege of meeting Rick Bragg, who wrote the brilliant, bestselling book All Over But the Shoutin'. In the book, he describes--with love and awe--how his mother was able to raise him despite being abandoned by his drunk, violent father.  In one passage, he tells about a time when he was a small boy, and watched his father "beat the mortal hell" out of another man in a parking lot.

I can't imagine seeing a thing like that.  I grew in the same sort of hill-country southern town Rick Bragg did (the Ozarks, not the Appalachians, but the cultures are practically identical), but my dad is everything his wasn't: kind, responsible, and principled. He's one of the greatest men I know, and I could go on and on about why that's true. I won't because we don't usually gush in my family, and it would embarrass him even more than this essay will.  So I'll focus on why, because it was Dad's birthday, I felt moved to give a politician--a politician with views that are hateful to me--the benefit of the doubt.  Not only that, but to do what comes even less naturally to me, and speak up in his defense. The answer is, that's what Dad taught me to do.

In fact, both my Mom and my Dad always taught me to be try to be relentlessly fair-minded. As a child, when I came home talking about how mean some kid had been at school, they would say, "Well, he might be having a pretty rough time at home." And he probably was. If a grownup was raising his voice, getting out of line, they would mention it later. "He must have been having a bad day. I doubt he acts like that all the time". I didn't start to realize how rare this attitude was until I was a young teenager. I would go to high school basketball games (as a spectator--I can barely dribble a basketball), and watch other dads get all red-faced and hoarse yelling at the referees. They always thought the refs were favoring the other team. Once, driving me home from a game, Dad said, "Well, we won, but those refs wanted us to win awfully bad". I couldn't imagine any of those other dads--the hollerin' dads--saying a thing like that. They would have looked at him like he was Benedict Arnold. In fact, they did, because he wasn't afraid to say so when the refs were favoring us, or when the other team beat us fair and square. I suspect he was especially likely to speak up if one of his kids was in earshot. When I was a kid, one of the surest ways to get in trouble was to be a poor sport. It was one of the THINGS YOU DO NOT DO.

Growing up, Mom and Dad gave me the impression that all adults were basically sensible, level-headed, and least deep down.  In short, I thought grownups generally acted like grownups, and if they didn't, they were probably having a bad day. If they never seemed to act right, well, they probably had other good qualities, or "they had a pretty rough childhood...never had much of a chance".

When I got older, Mom and Dad would let their guard down more. In my family, when someone is acting like a stinker, they are "being a toad". Once, when I was about 17, Dad and I got into a debate with a man whose anger and racism always hovered over him like a repellent cloud. I had been around this person all my life, and never heard Dad say anything bad about him. On the way home, Dad said, "Well, he's just kind of an old toad". Later, I heard my Mom talking about the same guy, "You know, he's always been so good to his wife and kids."  Let me be clear: they weren't excusing his racism.  I've seen them both argue with him over it.  It's just that they didn't want to write him off as a worthless human being.  Because he wasn't.  He was good to his wife and kids, and he probably has several other redeeming qualities. One rotten part of an apple doesn't make the whole thing poisonous.

Looking back, I realize that Dad's unbending fair-mindedness and diplomacy was partly for the benefit of his kids. He was setting an example. Dad's a passionate man, and when he gets heated up about an issue, he might raise his voice a little. He's been known to reject arguments he doesn't like without giving them a fair hearing. We all do that, if we have any soul. And Dad has a lot. He didn't teach his kids to be fair and forgiving because he was afraid of conflict. He doesn't generally like conflict, but when it comes to something he thinks is important, he's not afraid of anybody.

Over the last few years, he's grown notorious among the sports fans of Arkansas for saying schools spend too much of the taxpayers' money on gyms and football fields, and not enough on teaching kids to read and write. Half the thick-necked football coaches in the state are mad at him, and so are most of the superintendents (they generally started out as coaches themselves). Dad doesn't relish that fact, but he accepts it as unavoidable. When they yell and bluster at him for daring to question the sacredness of the gym floor and the gridiron, he almost always keeps his cool. Because he knows that the cool-headed person is most likely to win an argument. And because that's how grownups are supposed to act.

When I went to college and majored in psychology, I realized how right Mom and Dad in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I learned about ideas like the Fundamental Attribution Error:  the tendency people have to attribute their own mistakes to external factors, and other people's mistakes to personal failings. This tendency explains why it is that when I cut someone off in traffic, it's because I was distracted, but when someone cuts me off, it's because he's a road-raging idiot. Psychology is full of similar insights. Our brains tie themselves in knots trying to convince themselves that we are good and in the right, and that our opponents are sinister and wrong. We're the good guys; they're the bad guys. When Mom and Dad taught me to remember that I might be wrong, and that other people might not be as bad as they seem, they were unknowingly offering sound, lab-tested psychological advice.

The funny thing is, I don't really know where their attitude came from. I believe Dad got his sense of sportsmanship partly from his high school coach. I never met the man, but I'm grateful to him for sending that lesson into the future.  As for the fairness and charity of judgement my parents display, I know they learned it from their parents, but I'm not sure where to trace it beyond that. It may be an aspect of that tendency among some southerners to be polite right up to the point where they're ready to strangle someone. Not all southerners act that way, by any means, but that is one thing about the south I would like to see exported to other parts of the country (there are other things about the south, like the racism and small-mindedness that are still all too common, that should die quickly and have a dance floor built over their graves).

Wherever my parent's fair-mindedness came from, I think we need their attitude now more than ever. American politics has always been divisive, but both sides seem to demonize each other more now than they ever did before. Every day I hear people suggesting that liberals are all idiotic, traitorous socialists; or that conservatives are all mean-spirited, racist fear mongers.  As the two sides' mutual contempt grows, their ideologies grow more starkly opposed, and extremism grows more common.

I'm not saying we should all be political centrists. As an independent who leans more left than right, I've never been so concerned about the fear, callousness, and xenophobia I see in some parts of the Republican party. I'm realizing I need to have the backbone my Dad does, and push back against these hurtful undercurrents threatening my country. At the same time, though, I think it's important to remember the other lesson he taught me. However badly people seem to be acting, and as repellent as I may find their views, many of them are very good people in other ways. They take care of their kids and parents. They donate to charities. They try to do the right thing, as they see it. Sure, some of them are hateful sorts with few redeeming qualities.  But most of them aren't, and the ones that are can be found on both sides of the political divide. This means if you give someone the benefit of the doubt and assume that they're a decent person in many ways, you'll be right most of the time. We shouldn't demonize each other, because very, very few of us really are demons.

Sadly though, the impression I got from my parents--that adult humans almost always act like grownups--turned out to be false. I just turned forty, and somehow I'm still surprised when I see adults being petty, calling each other names, and losing control of their temper as if doing so is a thing to be proud of. I'm surprised at myself when I do those things. But I'm glad my parents' example gave me unrealistic expectations for how grown-ups should act. Maybe if more of us start believing we should act like grownups, one day we actually will.