A Matter of Dignity


Last night’s presidential debate was interesting in how incoherent it was at times, how poorly the format worked, how predictable and rehearsed Romney was and how subdued Obama was. The pundits are going to exhaust themselves today, analyzing every single moment of the debates. They’re going to try to declare a winner. They’re going to pretend the debate was actually a debate.

A good debate requires good questions and a strong moderator. Neither of these elements were in place so the candidates were left with largely unmoderated swaths of time they mostly used to repeat themselves and try to appear as presidential as possible.

There is a futility to modern politics, a sense that there is little value in the process. It has become a competition for who can raise the most money and control their narrative in the media best. Politics are rarely about ideas or substance anymore and we are all the lesser for it.

Obama may not have been on fire the way he is known to be but he had good ideas. He had sound ideas. What impressed me most was when he said he’s willing to say no when he needs to say no. That is so important and I fear it’s going to be the most underreported moment in the debate even though it was the most honest and necessary thing said.

Presidential candidates are generally so intensely focused on their goal of being elected that they will say yes to anything. No candiate in recent memory has demonstrated this willingness to acquiesce more than Mitt Romney. His unwavering willingness to pander to the far right is disturbing because you cannot trust a man who says yes to everything. It means he lacks the ability to make judgments, the ability to discern, which is the foundation of what it means to be presidential. Romney lacks discernment because he wants to win at any cost. He doesn’t care about how much he compromises his integrity because he is entitled. He can just buy some integrity once he’s in office.

As I watched the debate, it struck me that Romney’s strategy was to use a combination of the following, at will: God, states, private, middle class, Reagan, Massachusetts, all interspersed with falsehoods and somber stories about “real” Americans whose stories somehow support his shoddy, unsubstantiated arguments and falsehoods.

We’re partly to blame for this. We want spoon-fed catchphrase politics that don’t demand critical thought. We want, perhaps, Twitter politics—platforms dictated 140 characters at a time so we can remain reflexively entrenched within our own ideologies.

In some ways, I am guilty of this. I am pretty staunchly Democrat. I do actually consider other platforms. I’ve read Romney’s website and listened to his interviews but I fundamentally disagree with his stances on so many issues that are non-negotiable to me that there’s no way I could really consider voting for anyone but Obama. Until Republicans change their stance on reproductive freedom and marriage equality there is simply no other choice for me.  I’m not going to compromise on this. None of us should.

Obama is not a perfect president. We know that, and how. He has made missteps. He has made questionable decisions on the international stage, supposedly for the greater good. This troubles me but the longer he is in office, the more it becomes clear Obama is a good president. He doesn’t say yes to everything. He takes difficult, unpopular positions. He’s not afraid to go against the grain. That’s what a president does. I would be rather disinclined to trust an immensely popular president (unless we’re talking about my man Bill Clinton). An overly popular president is too busy saying yes to too many people instead of leading.

But, there was a bigger problem in the debate than Romney or Obama and how well they did or did not do (though it is a bit baffling that Obama let Romney’s 47% debacle slide)—the issues they omitted. Part of the problem was the format but part of the problem was that certain issues always get shafted for supposedly more important issues. There was a stark absence of discussion about women’s issues and reproductive freedom. There was a stark absence of discussion about marriage equality.

Because we have bills to pay, it is understandable that the economy will be foregrounded in a debate. Because we have human bodies, it is understandable that healthcare will be similarly foregrounded. Because we have minds, it is understandable that education will be a hotly debated topic.

There is also the matter of dignity. You can have a great job and great healthcare but if you are queer, you cannot legally marry your partner in most parts of the country. You cannot be afforded the same rights bestowed upon heterosexual couples. If you are a woman, you are not guaranteed equal pay for equal work. You are not guaranteed reasonable access to reproductive healthcare. For some of us dignity is a right. For some of us dignity is a privilege we are rarely bestowed. Certain constituencies are always shoved aside, always told their issues will be addressed at some nebulous point in the future. During a lengthy debate, to see these issues merit neither discussion nor debate speaks to how little dignity is valued on the political stage. While people endlessly worry over who did what during this first debate, I’m going to consider these silences and the shame of them. I suspect that will keep me quite busy.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →