Why Michelle Obama still insists on going high when they go low

Michelle Obama demonstrating principles in action.
Michelle Obama demonstrating principles in action.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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As we approach the annual resolution season and look ahead at another year of political wrangling, it’s worth reconsidering the advice Michelle Obama famously shared in 2016 on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s US presidential campaign: “When they go low, we go high.”

Last month, speaking to Blavity, a publication for black millennials, the former US first lady explained why she continues to insist on this approach in life and politics. “I absolutely still believe that we’ve got to go high―always and without exception,” she said. “It’s the only way we can keep our dignity.”

For Obama, failing to follow her own rule means losing. So she has to fight any desire to respond crudely or cruelly to insults and bullying and always keep the big picture in mind, which is admittedly difficult at times. “If you allow yourself to play on their terms, they win…Going high isn’t just about the fight you want to win, but it’s also about the person you want to be—and the kind of country you want to have,” she told Blavity.

The flip side

Of course, not everyone agrees with this tactic, whether in politics or other contexts. Clinton bravely took the high road the day after the 2016 election, conceding to Republican rival Donald Trump and telling her supporters “we owe him an open mind and a chance to succeed.”  But almost two years into Trump’s administration, in an Oct. 9 interview with CNN, Clinton declared that “you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for…the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength.” Taking the opposite approach from the one expressed by Obama, Clinton argues that when Democrats are in power again, they can go back to being civil, but for now, they must be rough.

Or consider the message of former US attorney general Eric Holder on Oct. 10, campaigning in Georgia for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “When they go low, we kick them,” he said. “That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.” Holder clarified that he wasn’t actually advocating violence or illegal action, just taking a tougher stance than the high-minded approach articulated by Obama.

After former US president George H.W. Bush’s funeral service on Dec. 5, during which the Obamas exchanged polite hellos with the Trumps, The Atlantic columnist Jemele Hill wrote, “Sometimes I wish the Obamas wouldn’t go high.” Like Clinton and Holder, she argues that it’s not always the right way to fight, and that by going high, the Obamas assimilate a history of racism that should be the burden of racists. Hill writes:

[I]t was infuriating to see the Obamas graciously engage with the man who spent years vociferously promoting the racist conspiracy theory that the former president is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States. Also recall that Donald Trump repeatedly challenged Obama to produce his college-admissions records—because it wasn’t enough for Trump to try to invalidate Obama’s presidency, he had to question Obama’s intellect.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was barely civil with the Trumps at the service. As Hill notes, “She looked like she would have rather sawed off her arm than acknowledge the Trumps. She gave the president and first lady a slight nod as they took their seats.” But then, “the Obamas didn’t have the luxury of treating Trump the way.”

Hill argues that for black people, the message has always been that they have to “be twice as good to get half as much as anybody white” and are “conditioned to believe that maintaining the moral high ground and being a bigger person is the only way to defeat racism.” But Hill says that being the bigger, better person also means shielding everyone else from the devastating effects of racism.

While Hill’s anger is justified, it’s not clear that going low—snubbing the Trumps in this case—does anything to educate racists.

Thinking big

So, who is right—Obama or Clinton? Should civility be abandoned until a later date when you have the power to be expansive and gracious? Or does your power come from standing firm in your convictions and principles whatever the circumstances?

As Obama notes in her discussion with Blavity, taking the high road isn’t about turning away from an important fight. Rather, it’s about fighting on one’s own terms:

When the haters come our way, we don’t let them distract us from our purpose. We brush them off when we can, and we deal with them when we need to. But we never lose sight of our goal. We never stop working. And we never stop trying to set a good example for the next generation.

What she wants to show people, she argues, is that anger, spite, and pettiness cannot defeat honesty, generosity, and respect. In her view, when you don’t resort to going low, when you take the high road, you are winning by thinking of the big picture. Obama doesn’t seem to think there’s a serious question about whether it’s worthwhile to always stick to her principles. “I think the answer is easy enough. And it’s an answer that always applies, not just when it’s easy.”

In other words, you don’t wait until you’re strong to display the values you most admire. You do it when you’re down—and that’s how you lift yourself and everyone else up.

Two wrongs

Doing the right thing can mean different things in various contexts. Sometimes, at work or in a family or in relationships, for example, doing the right thing means not acting, not being hijacked by emotions, or not confronting someone, or dropping a contentious topic though you may have strong opinions. If your arguments risk causing a deep rift or devolving into anger and name-calling, then it might be time to think about taking the high road.

You are not a dog with a bone. You can choose to drop things, to stop arguing when it causes irreparable harm. If the goal of the group, whether in business or at home, is to communicate and cooperate, and that starts to become impossible, then your job, whatever your position, is to stop the discord before it’s too late.

Many of us were taught early on that two wrongs don’t make a right. But we can’t help feeling sometimes that it would be nice to hurt those who cause us pain, to exact revenge, or to cheat, to break the rules, because others have done this, too. The reason to turn away from this temptation—if indeed your aim is to be a positive force in this world and to win by sticking to principles—is because taking the low road undermines long-term goals and erodes society as a whole.

There are plenty of trolls everywhere, uninterested in fighting fair. But succumbing to the urge to snap back at every jerk, online or in real life, does everyone damage, and outrage is both physically and mentally exhausting to all. When we manage to formulate a definition of victory that includes civility and dignity, rather than hate and rage, we win by dictating the terms of engagement and exercising positive strength. When you go high instead of low, you notch your own victory—and show there’s hope for humanity as a whole.