There aren’t many sure things in life, but here are three: 1) Turn former president Bill Clinton loose on the campaign trail and he’ll say something no one expects. 2) No matter how you try, you won’t be able to pass off that Creed tee shirt as ironic. 3) And sometime in the past few days you have offended someone.
I’m sure you didn’t mean it. You look like a reasonable soul. But undoubtedly you walked your dog past a cat person, or you accidentally ordered a burger at a vegan cafe, or you wore a fedora, or – and here comes the big one – you expressed support for a political candidate someone else considers unacceptable. Or vile. Or detestable.
The odds are quite high considering a CBS/New York Times poll has found the front runners in each major party – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – are sporting historically horrible negative ratings. Think about that. Right now, if you trot into some politically neutral town square and voice your preference in even the nicest terms, you will almost certainly offend some folks.
But these are not awful people with horns and cloven hooves. They are citizens who feel as passionately as you do about the future, the need for responsible government, and the well being of their fellow humans. They just think you are wrong. I know because I have talked to dozens on all sides of this election, and the vast majority are reasonable, calm and caring with good reasons for their political choices.
And yet offense is taken at every turn. At Emory University, for example, some students were so upset over chalked words of support for Trump on their campus they stormed the university president’s office to demand action against the wanton and reckless chalkers – in other words exercising their right of free speech to combat, um, free speech.
But the concept of free speech exists not just for people with whom we agree, but also for those who say things we find disturbing. So here is an idea: next time someone says something about this election you find infuriating, try “free listening” for a bit – try to understand why he or she feels that way, and you may find you have something worth discussing. After all, we all offend now and then.
(CNN’s Tom Foreman is the author of My Year of Running Dangerously)