On December 20, actress and singer Bette Midler wrote a morning Twitter post castigating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia for not supporting President Joe Biden’s proposed Build Back Better spending package. Rather than limit her focus on Manchin, Midler slammed the state of West Virginia by referring to it as: “Poor, illiterate and strung out.”
The negative response to Midler’s tweet was swift. Within 40 minutes, Midler had tweeted an apology “to the good people of WVA” for her outburst, attributing it to seeing red over Manchin’s lack of Democratic political support.
If Midler had taken a moment to dig, she would have found a report from Data for Progress, a progressive polling group, that found that a majority of West Virginians supported the Build Back Better plan.
No matter what caused her not to do so, Midler deserved to be publicly criticized for her Tweet attacking West Virginians with a broad, unfounded characterization. I have a fondness for West Virginia and West Virginians since one of the colleges I attended is there. A professional acquaintance once wondered why I publicly criticized her for her post on social media featuring negative stereotypes about West Virginia. I publicly criticized her for her post because baseless accusations are wrong and not only when they involve West Virginia.
When readers ask how to talk with those with whom they disagree, I don’t always have an answer that will yield success for them. But a cardinal rule in engaging with someone is to refrain from making broad, baseless accusations rather than sticking to what you know to be factual. A second rule is to decide whether you truly want to have a conversation with someone or whether your goal is to point out to them how very, very wrong they are about anything with which you don’t agree. If you can’t start by embracing these two rules of engagement before engaging, then my sense is that you really don’t want to engage.
If Midler had wanted to point out why she believed Sen. Manchin’s vote was wrong, she could have focused on that. If she wanted to engage West Virginians via social media to ask them whether their senator was truly serving their interests, she could have done that. But once she devolved into attacking the character of every person in West Virginia, she lost any ability to engage them in a discussion. Apologizing after a swift backlash to the “good people” might show remorse, but it does little to open an informed discussion.
The same goes for in-person discussions. Calling someone an idiot or immoral because he or she or they don’t agree with you shuts down the conversation and says more about the caller’s intolerance and dismissiveness than it does about whatever might be the desired focus of discussion.
Midler is hardly alone in such behavior. She just happens, with over 2 million Twitter followers as of this writing, to have a large platform that might have been used to greater effect had she refrained from baseless characterizations.
Perhaps, as we end another year, each of us should knock it off with the name calling and instead focus on our ability to argue strongly and factually for those things we support while listening openly to those who may disagree. From a distance, that seems the right thing to do.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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