Thursday, December 9, 2010

With Friends Like These... : Why Manners Still Matter in Political Discussion

I should have known better.

I have an old friend who was in elementary school and the same church youth group in high school with me. I have not seen her since the early 80s, but through the magic of the internet, we have "friended" each other and occasionally drop each other a line.

She has a job that involves politics. She is, as best as I can tell, a spokesperson in her state for a particular party and often writes about certain issues and candidates. While I almost never respond to these posts, yesterday, I did. She had made a statement about a certain issue that I felt was unintentionally misleading, and I offered a different idea.

In rejoinder, she launched a long paragraph beginning with that dreaded phrase, "With all due respect..." You know you are about to get pounded after an intro like that. She then stated her position and listed some examples, and she concluded by saying that those who disagree with her "have not only proven to be an abject failure, they are immoral."

This is where our political dialog has gone. In what should have been a light-hearted exchange between two old friends, I made one statement and was called both an "abject failure" and "immoral."

Our two respective viewpoints are not material to this blog. You can find this level of personal attack on both sides of the political spectrum.

My point is to note that if a semi-public forum where a politico is responding to a "friend" produces this type of name-calling and insensitive rhetoric, it is not hard to understand how bad the hard-core political debate has become.

We have a serious problem in this country. It is a problem that goes far beyond tax policy, abortion, the war in Afghanistan, or WikiLeaks.

The problem is this: We don't like each other. We don't trust each other. Too many of us want everyone else to shut up so we can speak.

We have a fear of opposing views. We are largely unwilling to encounter, understand, or tolerate the opposition. We have a great deal of trouble getting along in what our grandparents would have called the required fashion.

It was not so long ago that calling somebody "immoral" would have earned you a punch in the nose.

How did we get here? Undoubtedly this is, at least in part, a necessary by-product of the combination of the explosion of information technology and the constant pressure to protect First Amendment freedoms. Both of those are good things. But they require common sense and decency among us. When the sphere of public debate opened to anyone who has a computer or a videocamera, the standards of what it takes to be a "commentator" plummeted. It's like expansion in baseball - it is a lot easier to be a starter, or even an All-Star, when there are a lot more teams that have to be filled.

Another reason we got here is the sense that the person who yells the loudest wins the argument. Whether we follow someone who says he can win the debate "with half my brain tied behind my back" or we adhere to the views of one whose "honesty ... has set the boundaries of where funny, political talk can go," we see celebrity debate defined by volume, pique, and highbrow insult.

However we got here, it is time to evaluate where we are going. Does anybody at this point think the level of political dialog in this country is on-balance good? Is there anybody left who really believes the discussion can be bettered with just one more ad hominem attack?

It is an individual responsibility. Each of us needs to remember what our mothers taught us. Watch the shows that respect people. Use language that engages issues without demeaning the opponent. Vote for candidates who are interested in bettering your community instead of earning the sound bite.

I know I may be dreaming.

So let's just start here. Don't call your friends "immoral" because they take a different political position from yours.

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