01 Michelle Obama 0929
'When they go low, we go high' still stands
01:47 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and author of the book “The Opposite of Hate.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” But what happens if you know the enemy but not yourself? Sun Tzu didn’t address this, but lately Democrats sure have.

In 2016 Michelle Obama said this at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

This week, former Attorney General Eric Holder offered an amendment: The saying for Democrats today should be, “When they go low, we kick them.” Hillary Clinton also spoke out against civility in this moment, saying, “You cannot be civil with” the Republican Party because it “wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

I’m not with her. Or him. I’m still with Michelle Obama.

Michelle Obama is still with herself, too, apparently, as she said this week on the “Today” show in response to Holder’s remarks. What matters is “the messages that we send,” she said. “If we’re the adults and the leaders in the room, and we’re not showing that level of decency, we cannot expect our kids to do the same.”

What Obama is really talking about here are values – the ideas and ideals we convey to those around us, young and old, by how we talk and behave. And Democrats and liberals in general must not let their values be defined by Donald Trump and Republicans in this moment.

Ours cannot be a “they started it” morality – where we’re on our high horse until someone drags us down in the dirt. If we believe in respect and decency and civility and radical kindness, then we must act with respect and decency and civility and radical kindness regardless of how the “other side” is behaving. Values don’t bend with the political wind. Values are what define us. No matter the storms.

When Michelle Obama originally said “When they go low, we go high,” it was in the throes of the 2016 presidential campaign amid Trump’s repeated hate mongering, and pretty much everyone left of center cheered. Not just because it was the right stance, presumably, but also because we thought it would work.

That decency would defeat hate. It didn’t. And though obviously there were plenty of other variables in Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat, it raises the question, do we only believe the high road is the right choice if it leads to victory? Are our principles that conditional?

Sun Tzu also said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

If we know that we believe in civility and radical kindness – and continue to show it, in spite of the nastiness and cruelty of our opposition – then we may suffer some defeats, but we ultimately win the war. And, perhaps most importantly, along the way we help create a politics and culture worth fighting for.