TUGBOAT POLITICS: Avoiding the Politics of Rage

By Barry Peters

King Solomon observed that the king will be the friend of one whose speech is gracious. Conversely, the king's wrath will be unleashed upon the man who does not control his own temper.

For the last decade, graciousness in building relationships with Idaho's senators and representatives has been at the heart of our efforts in the legislature. The depth and tenor of those friendships have served home schoolers well. They have resulted in many legislators who are eager to defend home educators from assaults on their freedom to teach their children at home without governmental interference. But even among those legislators who do not particularly appreciate our home schooling freedoms are a number who none-the-less respect the gracious self-restraint that home educators have exhibited in their lobbying efforts.

Anger comes easily, especially in politics.

We have all witnessed times when, in frustration, a politician or political activist lambastes his adversary. He delivers what he considers to be a much-deserved scathing rebuke. He believes that this assault will discourage his opponent from making the same mistake in the future. It doesn't. More often it has the opposite effect of permanently burning any previously-built bridges and galvanizing an unfortunate breach in the relationship. When success in changing hearts and minds is all about relationships, the consequences of a bridge burned here and a bridge burned there can have prolonged, if not eternal, significance.

Politicians are wired like the rest of us. None likes to be corrected. And public chastisement is hard for all of us to take whether we live our life in the public eye or as a private citizen. We are all designed for relationship and acceptance. Hence, our inclinations will be to explain and defend our decisions, especially when we feel attacked. With public rebuke comes the need for a public rejoinder often precipitating a very public, but fruitless, exchange of insults. And the chance for meaningful dialog goes out the window.

There is a concept in ancient Greek of a Paracletos. The Paracletos is one called alongside another to gently guide him or her in the proper direction. That concept is useful to keep in mind in the political arena. Gently, but persistently, coming alongside a politician who is in need of a course correction will almost always be the more effective approach.

Consider a small tugboat. Despite its diminutive size, it is very capable of changing the direction of a gigantic aircraft carrier. It does so not by a frontal assault, but rather by coming alongside the larger vessel and gently and consistently applying pressure. In due course, the desired change slowly results. It takes persistence. If the tugboat does not see the desired result quickly, it would be a serious mistake for it to back up and slam the larger ship. Doing so would almost certainly damage, and possibly sink, the tugboat.

In the world of politics, our antenna should go up every time we hear an angry outburst, even when we agree that the rebuke was warranted. Though perhaps well-intentioned, that anger will be counterproductive. Rather than being convincing on the point, it will drive a wedge between the person at the focus of that anger and the behavior desired from that person. It will be as ineffective in the long run as the tugboat going head-to-head with the aircraft carrier.

Time after time, the result of this type of rebuke has not been to help the politician to change his position. Rather, the result has been not only the increase of the offense taken by the politician, but the marginalization of both the one leveling the criticism and the issue that is so close to the heart of that person. The natural consequences of the unrestrained anger will, during the remainder of the politician's tenure, be the loss of relationship, loss of goodwill, and often the loss of other votes in the future.

The winning of hearts is as important as the winning of political battles. Persistent and gentle persuasion that is at the same time well-principled is respectful of both the other person and his position. It may also be more productive even if there is an initial lack of evident fruit. The king will ultimately become the friend of the one whose speech is gracious, not the one whose outbursts are most strident. And preserving the relationship should be our goal despite our differences.

It has been the policy of both ICHE and CHOIS to practice this approach. That is why the email action alerts that ask home schoolers to contact legislators or politicians on home education issues begin with the reminder that we must be courteous in all correspondence and respectful of the position and service rendered by our leaders. Not only is that approach honoring, it has been extremely effective in the defense of home education. We have heard both from supporters and from opponents of home education who consistently maintain that the home schoolers in Idaho are the most effective citizen lobbyists in the state, bar none.

That assessment reflects not only our passion for our lifestyles and our freedoms, but the fact that our comments come to the legislators with a generous measure of grace. As a result, we have many friends among the legislators. And many who formerly questioned or were critical of our educational choices now are ardent supporters.

But the gracious speech lauded by King Solomon comes neither naturally, nor easily. It must be pursued diligently. When anger rears its head, we must as individuals and organizations encourage each other to count to ten slowly and let the emotion pass before speaking.

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