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I love Michelle Obama.
I cannot quantify or explain just how much I respect that woman, and President Obama. I don’t think there was one single thing either of them did or said that I disagreed with.
Until there was.
Back in 2016, when Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high…” in an endorsement speech for then Presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, my heart sank because it was the first time I took issue with something she said.
I understood even then that Mrs. Obama was encouraging Americans to be classy and dignified and not fall into a quagmire of hate and the “he said, she said” game of one-upmanship. I understood, but I disagreed.
And now, almost six years later, I still disagree with it.
I’m not sure if this is just my imagination or not, but on a personal level I felt a visible shift in the cultural zeitgeist after Mrs. Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention. I cannot count the number of friends and family members who continue to quote those lines to make a point. I also cannot count the number of times others have made fun of those lines.
Conceptually, it sounds absolutely spot-on, doesn’t it? Basically, Mrs. Obama asked everyone not to be a f*cking jerk, even if someone else was a jerk to us first. The moral of the quote, to me, was that if you react to an idiot by mimicking the idiot, then you’re an idiot as well.
Essentially, Mrs. Obama was asking us all not to be f*cking idiots.
But here’s the thing: the world and people are not that simple. Or, maybe, they are that simple and we just give them more complexity than they deserve.
Let me explain.
I remember I was about six or seven when my father got down on his haunches, face-to-face with me, and explained how to use the watercolors he’d gifted me. He used simple and basic words that I understood. Afterward, he got back on his feet and admonished his assistant for not following up with a vendor, and then phoned his American clients and seamlessly schmoozed them the way they needed to be schmoozed.
He would also generously appreciate my mom for her ability to whip up some of the most amazing vegetarian dishes and claim she was the best chef in the entire world. Then he’d rinse and repeat the exact same words with his mother when my grandma fed him. I remember calling him out as a liar. How can two women be the “best chef in the entire world”? I’d ask incredulously. He’d just smile.
As I grew up, I saw my dad play different roles with different people. When I asked him about his “acting” skills, he said something I never ever forgot. He said, “It’s important to speak to everyone in a language they understand. Otherwise, you’ll simply be barking like a dog at a tree.” Clearly, dad was putting his spin on a popular misquote often attributed to the sublime Nelson Mandela. But, to me, these words represented a significant shift in terms of how I started dealing with people. The seamless way my father handled different groups of people left a lasting impression on me.
So, when Mrs. Obama talked about taking the high road with those who weren’t the nicest of people—those who saw niceness and taking the high road as an inherent weakness, as a sign of stupidity and sentimentality—my heart sank. Because, more times than not, these profound statements sound incredible when you read them or have an orator of Mrs. Obama’s caliber speak them, but in real life, they’re often extremely impractical.
Feel free to disagree, but I firmly believe that the only way to respond to a jerk is to “speak jerk.”
I also believe that sometimes when we take the high road with people who don’t deserve it, we allow them to get away with the heinous behavior they insist on forcing on others.
Let me give you an example.
A few years back, I heard stories about Person 1, who consistently said mean, unprofessional things to her co-worker, Person 2 (a friend of mine) but always claimed they were meant as a joke. Person 2 always took the high road. She shrugged and never said anything back. But soon, comedy became tragedy when Person 1 complained about Person 2 to their superiors. They held the exact same position at work, so Person 1 essentially exploited Person 2’s niceness and lack of response, which worked to Person 1’s advantage.
After a while, a few of Person 2’s friends put our collective foot down and asked her to lodge an official complaint against Person 1. Initially, she refused. She wanted to “just wait it out,” but things did not get any better. In fact, they got worse. Unfortunately, by the time Person 2 felt the need to do something tangible and did actually complain, it was too late. Their boss already believed Person 1.
Things got so bad that Person 2 eventually quit because she couldn’t handle the disgusting rumors going around about her personal and professional life, all of which were untrue. And all this because Person 2 believed in the basic human decency of Person 1; she refused to believe that anyone could be that cruel. Because she believed so much in the genuine goodness of humanity, she took the high road—and paid a heavy price for it.
If it was me, I wouldn’t have taken the high road. F*ck that. I would’ve fought back. If someone treated me poorly, I’d start by giving them the benefit of the doubt, but if it continued, I’d absolutely stand up for myself. If I were Person 2, I would’ve started with the traditional route and lodged an official complaint, but if that didn’t work, you better believe the gloves would come off. And yes, this might feel very “tit for tat,” but sorry not sorry.
In today’s world, sometimes we have to do what works—what gets us our desired results.
Please don’t get me wrong. There are some amazing people in this world who do amazing things for others. So yes, be amazing with them. Reward those who treat you well. But fight back in kind against those who do you harm. Otherwise, the latter continues believing that what they’re doing is right and justified and okay.
And it’s not.
It’s also important to note that for every Person 2 who takes the high road, there are many others on the opposite end of the spectrum. People who automatically default to the low road. There are people I know and love who suspect everyone and believe there is zero genuine goodness left in our world. They are beyond cynical and believe that people like Person 2—those who are sympathetic and understanding of others—deserve what they get.
I wholeheartedly disagree with that as well.
I don’t think life is binary in any permutation. Life is all about varied shades of grey, and there is no “one-size-fits-all’ for how we operate in the world, or there shouldn’t be. For me, it’s all about treating each person and each situation independently. With those who take the low road, I fight dirty and mean and meet them there if necessary. But for people who take the high road, I applaud their innate humanity and show my appreciation for their kindness.
For me, it’s never about taking the high or the low road.
Instead, I choose to role play like my father did. I speak to people in a language they understand. I place every situation in context. I try to suss out a person and figure out who I’m dealing with first, before I decide how best to behave with them.
And then I take the smart road.