Pictures, Politics, Polarization & the 8th Grade Mind

With U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) at the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

If a picture says a thousand words, what does it say that I asked one of my two United States Senators, Mark Warner (D-VA), if I could have my picture taken with him at a recent AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference? I would have had my picture taken with my other Senator, Tim Kaine (D-VA), Hillary Clinton’s Vice Presidential running mate, but, alas, he never made it over to our area.

Well, if you’re an 8th grader from South Orange Middle School in Orange, NJ, it apparently says that I must think that Senator Warner — and any other elected leader who I have my picture taken with — always has my best interests at heart. Or, that I must have voted for them.

According to a recent defense by Jordan McCray­-Robinson, one of the nearly 100 students who refused to have their picture taken with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at the Capitol during a school visit at the end of May, he decided that his personal convictions made it impossible for him (and some of his fellow students) to take part in a group photo:

“I am here to tell the nation that although we’re only in the 8th grade, we have our own thoughts and opinions … I decided I didn’t want to take a picture with someone who doesn’t have my best interests in mind. Mr. Ryan and the administration want to cut health care for 23 million people. Am I one of those U.S citizens that will be affected?”

Now, I am certainly glad that we live in a country where anyone, including middle school students, can choose whether or not they will participate in a group photograph with an elected leader. That includes the equal number of students who chose to have their picture taken with Speaker Ryan.  However, disagreeing with someone’s decision — if done in a respectful manner — is certainly part of the democratic fabric that makes our country great. However, one cannot have it both ways as Jordan McCray-Robinson seems to argue in his editorial:

I, for one, think it’s ridiculous for adults to shame kids for being politically aware and not being afraid to express ourselves. I think it’s not only rude, but ignorant to tell a 14 year old that they’re not entitled to an opinion because “kids have no experience in the real world, so who should care about what they think or say.”­

Excuse me?! If I’m not in the “real world,” where am I? I have the same right to express myself as everyone else in this country. Why shouldn’t I be able to show how I feel about what the current administration has been doing? If I was 32 years old and decided not to take a picture, I am guessing nobody would criticize me or my opinion because of my age, so what gives so many adults the right to do so now?

I, too, find it unfortunate that adults would use social media to shame kids like Jordan who refused to have their picture taken. And, yes, it is rude and ignorant to tell someone they cannot have an opinion on an issue because they do not have any experience with said issue, real world or otherwise.

However, If you want to “have your own thoughts and opinions,” and particularly if you publicly defend your public decisions in a public forum based on those thoughts and opinions, you should fully expect that others will challenge your thinking and your opinions. As I write my blog posts, I fully expect — and welcome — those who disagree with my thoughts and opinions. Sometimes those challenges cause me to rethink my position. Other challenges cause me to clarify and solidify my positions. That is as it should be.

So, let me challenge the thinking of Jordan and his classmates — along with countless adults on both sides of the political spectrum — who believe that talking to, taking pictures with, shaking the hand of, or otherwise interacting with elected leaders (and friends or family members, for that matter) with whom you disagree is tantamount to accepting all of that person’s beliefs and political positions. As Cousin Balki from “Perfect Strangers” via “The Leftovers” might say, “Don’t be ridiculous!”

I can confidently say that I disagree with 90% of the positions that my two United States’ Senators hold. The same could be said about my level of agreement with former Presidents Obama and Clinton. However, given the opportunity to dine with the President Obama or grab an ice cream cone with V.P. Joe Biden, I would gladly accept. Not only is it the courteous thing to do, it is the civil thing to do. This should be basic “Civics 101,” but apparently civics is a relic of the past. And, it shows.

What 8th graders might not realize yet — and what many adults fail to comprehend today — is that we can honor the office and can show respect to the man or woman in that office without necessarily agreeing with every position that office-holder espouses. When former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference, I gave them the respect that they were entitled to as elected members of Congress. Just because I applauded some of what they said did not imply that I wholeheartedly agreed with every position they take on every issue.

So, the next time you are in Washington, D.C. or your state capital and you have the opportunity to get your picture taken with an elected official, why not graciously accept the invitation? If you’re asked to eat dinner at the White House, you should go, regardless of who the current occupant is. You can still have your own thoughts and opinions. Just by shaking someone’s hand or taking a group photo with someone on the opposing side won’t magically change you beliefs, but it might change how you view people who differ with you on major (and minor) issues in life.

Coming to that conclusion does take time and experience, something that is in shorter supply at age 14 than at age 50. I’m just glad that the thoughts and opinions I had in middle school have evolved over time. In 1980, when I was in the 8th grade, I thought that Senator Ted Kennedy was going to make a great President. Now, with the experience and hindsight of almost forty years, I can say without a shadow of a doubt about that thought and opinion, “Boy, was I wrong!”

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