It Got Really Ugly Really Fast

This past presidential election and its aftermath show how divided this country is over so many social and other issues. Many on both sides of this divide carry a tinder box of opinions that can catch fire at the slightest provocation.

Students of American history well know that American institutions have been tested in battle before and survived. For example, Thomas Jefferson led the nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and Andrew Jackson was not accepted by some as a “legitimate” president. Suffice to say that “false facts” are not a recent creation. So, while we should all probably despair a little less about the future of our country, that doesn’t make our interactions with people who hold strong opinions that are contrary to our own any less challenging. I learned this the hard way.

In 1989, I was elected to serve on the board of directors of a fairly large business. We were a collegial group that spent a considerable amount of time together. At one board meeting in 1995, the board members who lived in town, including the chairman, and their wives hosted a dinner for those of us who were from out of town. The dinner was at one of the best restaurants in that city, and it started out as a warm and friendly affair. I was seated in the middle of the table, across from the wife of the chairman.

As the group chatted about various things, the wife of one of my colleagues mentioned her opposition to President Clinton’s nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to be the United States Surgeon General. From reading the paper and listening to the news, I believed that Dr. Foster was a well-regarded physician who had performed thousands of medical procedures over his long career, including about one hundred legal abortions. I asked why the person who spoke was opposed to his nomination and she said “because he is an abortionist.”

That should have been a red flag for me, but because the conversation up to then had been so relaxed and pleasant, and given my relationship with my fellow board members, and after a few glasses of wine, my guard was down. So instead of trying to change the subject, I said “It would be a shame if performing a small number of legal abortions over a long medical career disqualified that person from serving as the United States Surgeon General.”

The response from the wives around the table was quick and viscous. Dr. Foster quickly went from being called an “abortionist” to being called a “baby killer,” and the wife of the chairman expressed outrage that I could possibly support his nomination. It was now clear to me that I had inadvertently hit a very hot button. I tried to defuse the situation by acknowledging their deeply held feelings on this subject, and by saying that “I’m not trying to change your opinions, but I have a different view of Dr. Foster’s qualifications.” That simply caused the wives to accuse me of supporting the killing of babies. I was stunned.

I responded by saying, “I am trying to be respectful of your opinion but you are making no effort to be respectful of mine.” That only made the chairman’s wife even angrier. She said “I don’t respect your opinion because you are simply wrong.” At that point, even though we were in the middle of dinner, I said, “Unless we start talking about something else immediately, I am going to get up and leave the restaurant.”

After an awkward silence, one of my fellow board members finally came to my rescue, successfully changing the subject, and the dinner resumed and concluded without further incident. The next morning, the chairman apologized to me for what he said was the “inexcusable rudeness” of his wife. I accepted that apology.

So what did I learn from this ugly incident that might be useful in today’s tinder box political environment?

I’m glad I stood my ground about Dr. Foster, even though President Clinton ultimately withdrew his nomination because of the kind of opposition that was expressed during that dinner. Some members of the dinner group were trying to intimidate me, and this intimidation was intensified by my colleagues’ silence, which seemed to me to both sanction and validate the attack that I was experiencing. This gave me a better understanding about how a bystander’s decision to stand silent or to speak out can impact unacceptable behavior.

I also now understand that I should not have accepted the apology from the chairman. Rather, I should have told him that if he wanted to apologize, it should be for choosing to be a silent bystander who allowed the attempted intimidation to continue, and that if his wife wanted to apologize for her own unacceptable behavior, she should do it herself. While this would have been much harder to do then accepting his apology, I regret not doing it.

This experience also made me realize that abortion and other equally divisive subjects should not be discussed without first establishing some ground rules. For example, when I was told that Dr. Foster was not qualified to be the Surgeon General because he was an abortionist, I should have said that I had a different view, but that I did not want to discuss him any further unless we all agreed that we could disagree about this without becoming disagreeable. In the absence of such agreement, I could have stayed silent and avoided the whole incident. In addition, even if everyone had agreed to this ground rule, when the conversation became disagreeable, I could have changed the subject myself since any further discussion was likely to generate heat but no light.

I also learned that it is probably best to avoid mixing emotionally charged subjects with alcohol. Even though I am sure that none of us at that dinner had too much to drink, I think the wine lowered some of our inhibitions, which helped all of us inadvertently walk onto that mine field.

While these are pretty simple rules, I hope they may help you avoid or defuse situations that could otherwise become really ugly really fast.

Gordon Arkin is a 1970 graduate of the Law School. He is a retired partner of Foley and Lardner LLP.