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Moving beyond idiocy in US election repartee



Years ago someone defined repartee as, 'I say to you, "You're a bloody idiot", and you say back to me, "No, you're the bloody idiot".' It was then intended as a joke. Today it seems an accurate description of much public exchange, which is adversarial, leaves no room for qualification by either party, and condemns anyone who does not endorse right-minded opinion.

Trump and Clinton caricatureIn any discussion of economics, for example, participants will soon ignore how the economy actually works and label each other as neo-liberals or Marxists, elitists or popularists. Those who take different positions on gay marriage or abortion soon describe one another as inspired by authoritarian, patriarchal religious views, eco-feminism or radical gender theory. They condemn one another as beyond the pale

This is to be seen most spectacularly in the way in which those attracted to the cause of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton speak of their antagonists. Differences lead friends to break relationships.

The challenge that faces us in this environment is how to be true to our convictions and relationships without being drawn either by our natural allies or foes into partisanship. When self-criticism or empathy with our opponents are denounced as signs of half-heartedness, compromise and wishy washy views, it is tempting to be co-opted into the True Believers' team or to smile and remain silent.

A way forward may be found in an unlikely history. Many early Christian texts demanded of believers a firm commitment of mind and heart and a firm rejection of other religions. Christians must believe in God and reject idols, must worship Christ and not the emperor, can find salvation only within the church and not within breakaway groups. Those in the ark will be saved; those outside it will drown.

In such an imaginative world the great enemies are an intellectual waywardness that mixes the Gospel with elements drawn from other religious and philosophical systems, and a moral weakness that adjusts the demands of faith to the necessities of preserving life, possessions and public reputation. Against such contamination stood prophets who insisted on what alone mattered, and martyrs who resisted compromise where faith was at stake.

We might have expected Christians to adopt an adversarial vision in which their insistence on integrity led them to shun, condemn and exclude people whose certainty and courage did not measure up. They would then have become ever more sectarian in faith and ever more intolerant of compromise.

In practice, however, Christians consistently rejected a sectarian vision and insisted that the church was open to all: the shonky as well as the respectable. It was like a school in which recalcitrant children were formed in faith and good living, not a society for virtuous adults. Faith and its commitments were seen as a gift.


"Our own vulnerability to prejudice, self-delusion and to actions we later deplore urges us against condemning and excluding from our conversation others who disagree with us or act badly."


Underlying this inclusive vision was the conviction that all human beings were sinful. This meant that their intelligence was clouded and that their actions fell short of their intentions. It followed that no one was in a position to claim that their own understanding of faith was unquestionably correct. Nor were they in a position to condemn and cut relationships with others who thought wrongly or acted badly. They needed to listen and talk to one another and to forgive one another's failures.

Talk about sin today is unpopular, in Christian as well as in secular circles. It is ironically associated with the intolerance and harsh judgment from which it turned away earlier Christians. But the underlying insight that every person, group, and cultural understanding are fallible and need to be tested in conversation is relevant to our current predicament. We may be convinced and right in what we hold to, but whether we have understood it rightly and have appreciated the insights of our opponents is never to be taken for granted.

Our own vulnerability to prejudice, self-delusion and to actions we later deplore, too, urges us against condemning and excluding from our conversation others who disagree with us or act badly.

It is right passionately to hold views that we believe to be true and to regard the views of those with whom we disagree as profoundly mistaken. But we may still have much to learn from them, and when it comes to throwing stones at them we do well to remember the sayings about being without sin and living in glass houses. Even if Trump has massively overbidden his hand he is entitled to receive the normal courtesies as he plays it.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image by DonkeyHotey, Flickr

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton



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Existing comments

Last night, after a break of a few weeks, I picked up my Bible to resume a regular habit. I read the parable of the talents from Matthew's gospel. I thought of that parable after reading this article. A number of people may wonder at me! Sometimes we don't live up to our potential, we make poor decisions and, yes, we pay the price. I agree that no-one should be in a position to wield the sort of power where relationships become fractured and would hope that, in time, harsh words can be replaced by sense and sensibility.

Pam | 16 August 2016  

Very good point from the always perceptive Andrew. While the temptation as an American voter is to wonder what views, if any, Mr Trump actually holds to be true (he has been a registered voter in four political parties so far, says he belongs to a church though the church says it has no record of his membership, has been for and against abortion, has been for and against war, etc.) he appears to say whatever pops into his head at the moment, rather than believe in anything other than his own glory. But increasing numbers of American voters, I think, are beginning to discern that while he is a clown, his attraction means something powerful: millions of Americans are being left behind by the economy, millions are worried about their children in a country where the rich get richer and the rest poorer, and yes, millions are infuriated that the culture has moved in directions they cannot easily abide. Trump is a buffoon, but his meaning is no joke. It is increasingly instructive here to look beyond what may be a historic loss to the real issues behind his support.

Brian Doyle | 17 August 2016  

Thank you for such an insightful article.

Mary hollingworth | 17 August 2016  

If Angels could weep, they surely would at the sight of all God's 'Children' scattered at the foot of the Mountain of God, some needing to move North to reach the peak, and others South, etc., not realising that their different traditions are merely cultural interpretations, caused by their situations, of God's Constant and Universal Call. One misguided belief of Religion was summed up by Tertullian’s rejection of Greek science in his ‘De Praescriptione Haereticorum’ ‘What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides‘. Religion needs to be based on Proven Science, or it is prone to superstition. We talk about our Judeo-Christian tradition, but we rest more on faulty Greco-Roman traditions. The first Christians built on universal love and universal acceptance. But under Rome firstly books by dissenters were burnt and later the dissenters themselves were burnt.

Robert Liddy | 17 August 2016  

Interesting last paragraph, Andrew. Does this mean that Hitler or Pol Pot have much to teach us, are undeserving of our stone throwing (criticisms) and are entitled to the usual courtesies? It is a conciliatory or Christian attitude towards such people that makes them successful to the detriment of society at large.

john frawley | 17 August 2016  

If anti intellectualism is a part of our problem, could educational bodies be more aware of the need for critical thinking practice?

Margaret Moore | 17 August 2016  

'HUMILITY WHEN WE DO THE CROSSWORD OF LIFE.' This would be my summation of Andrew's article. It is an attitude that I totally endorse. I have long believed that no one is so smart that they cannot sometimes say something silly nor is anyone so silly that they cannot sometimes say something smart. When my wife and I do a crossword together, I'm often moved to say 'pencil it in with humility' (meaning very lightly). If the guessed word is confirmed as correct the letters can be made bold. If not the correct word can be written in easily without whiteout. Perhaps this attitude is one we could apply to many things in life. I wonder how you do a crossword?

Ern Azzopardi | 17 August 2016  

Thanks Andrew for the insight and the integrity. Prompts in this bush Methodist baby boomer a powerful reminder of the praxis of Grace - in the behaviour to which we aspire as disciples .....In essentials - unity; in non-essentials - liberty; in all things - charity. Perhaps it was from Augustine originally - but worked very hard by John Wesley and those he has influenced.

Wayne Sanderson | 17 August 2016  

There are many issues of a moral, social and political nature raised in Andrew's article. But since he started with a reference to repartee, I should like to comment by quoting that redoubtable and most cunning of British politicians Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 81) who wrote: "A majority is always the best repartee" (Tancred). That's what democratic politics has come down to - achieving and maintaining a majority of votes by "Whatever It Takes " (pace Senator Graham Richardson). All the rest of politics is a sad commentary on the state of the human condition - some parts good, some parts bad.

Uncle Pat | 18 August 2016  

Mr Frawley, have you heard of tyrannicide? ie Hitler and Pol Pot? Let's not trivialise the mass murder of millions by comparing these tyrants to Trump. He may be a fool, but so far he hasn't had a chance to inflict evil.

AURELIUS | 01 September 2016  

In Jude 1:9, St Michael does not presume to have the authority to rebuke the Devil. Lucifer too deserves the dignity of an archangel, derived from his being created as one by God. Yet, St Michael correctly deduces he should be rebuked, for what some commentators suggest was a plan to make the body of Moses an object of idolatry, and so refers him to God for such. Courtesy doesn't impede the truth but clarifies it: the sinner in the dignity of his person is separate from his sin. The law rebukes the deed, not the person. In his person, the tyrant or the convict deserves the normal courtesies.

Roy Chen Yee | 19 September 2016  

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