Watching Civility on Rerun
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Lately I’ve been finding solace in streaming reruns of The West Wing. I remember watching it sporadically while it was originally airing. I can’t now remember how many times since that I’ve watched the entire series. I’m sure there are those who have watched it more, though recently when my dad—another aficionado—asked me if I recalled the episode in which Bartlet called the Butterball hotline for advice about cooking the stuffing with the turkey, I could say, yes, I did. So I feel good about my credibility as a fan. As a cultural touchpoint, its message and content stand up well.
If you set out to create a platform that would resonate over time, how successful do you think you would be? When the show first aired in 1999, we were pre-9/11. In an episode I watched recently, Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, meets another character inside the bounds of airport security. A currently unrelatable experience. An anachronistic throwback to a time we perceived to be less complicated.
It is remarkable how many of the story arcs translate as applicable today, perhaps proving the adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And perhaps creating pause to consider how universal our priorities and fears are.
Our national politics seem to be at peak chaos and division. Our capacity, or even our desire, to communicate with those with whom we disagree is at its nadir. How have we gotten to this point? How has a fundamental belief in the utility of respectful discourse been so degraded? When did we forget to listen, and learn only to react? Communication is an art as old as civilization. Civilization and civility share etymological origin—worth it to keep in mind. To be successful, communication is necessarily bidirectional. One can tell, one can preach, or one can dictate solo, but to communicate implies mutuality. Ideally, then, implying also a baseline respect for the person on the receiving end of the message.
I turn to The West Wing because it idealizes (in fact, utterly romanticizes) the power of thoughtful communication. A team of overly educated, type A, overthinking, bleeding heart government staffers daily contend with the desire to get it right. Words are frequently their only tool, whether that be in legislation or regulation, a formal speech, or an impassioned hallway conversation with a colleague.
I can’t claim any moral superiority on any of these concerns. I am highly aligned in world view with most of my close personal circle, and rarely go in search of those challenging conversations. However, I try, in my hopeful moments, to hold fast to the premise that more unites us than divides us. We each want health, happiness, and the company of our loved ones. The rest should be able to be worked out. If only we could talk about it.