Somehow, we’ve gotten in to the mindset that if someone disagrees with you, they must be evil. Since the President was elected and took office, I’ve seen people of all political persuasions personally denigrating people who don’t agree with them. I’ve seen posts from supporters of several political schools of thought saying something to the effect of, “If you don’t agree with me, I don’t want to listen to you and I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t understand how you can be so stupid as to think something other than I do.” I understand the anger and frustration that leads to these thoughts and statements. If people are feeling scared or attacked, it makes sense that they would want to stop listening and/or talking to those who are scaring them or attacking what they believe in.
In my opinion, this is precisely the wrong tack to take. We’ve had political divides in our country before, we’ll have them again in the future. What is important is that people are able to express their political beliefs and make political statements in a civil manner. Just because somebody expresses an opinion that’s different from yours doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, it means that you hold different beliefs and opinions. Even if political leaders, including the President, don’t model this, we should not give up on civil discourse, it’s the only way we are going to get things done. Making someone into your enemy PREVENTS you from finding common ground with them. It’s a closed mindset that doesn’t do anyone any good.
Let me be clear on this, I’m not saying that abhorrent political speech should be ignored. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t stand up and denounce speech that is contrary to our collective values as a nation or a person’s political values. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t stand up to bullies. I am saying that making ad hominem attacks, no matter how tempting or satisfying, will further the division in our country. I am saying that even if our leaders aren’t modeling this behavior, WE SHOULD choose civility over personal attacks. I want my children to grow up in a world where they can have a strenuous political or policy argument with another person and then, be able to set that aside, and believe that the person they have just disagreed with is a valuable human being and possibly even a friend.
To me, it seems more and more that the politics of today are not about what’s best for the country, what’s in the long term interests of the our nation, or getting things done. Politics today seems to be about getting what you want no matter what the cost. This seems to have gotten exponentially worse during the term of our current President and his two predecessors. The way to stop this is to stand up and say no, I’m not going to return your personal attack. The way to stop this is to address issues directly, forcefully, and in a civil manner. Be wiling to recognize that your school of thought is not always going to be right and that coming to a compromise, even if it means you and the person you’re working with have to give something up, is probably the best way to move forward and get things done. Disagree on issues, disagree on beliefs, but don’t attack or denigrate those who disagree with you. Conversations and bridge building, especially on thorny topics is how progress is made.
Whether conservative or liberal, democrat or republican, green or purple, tory or whig, Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian, engage each other. Have hard conversations and remain friends afterwards. Work to understand what’s driving those who disagree with you. Find common ground, remember that your point of view isn’t, by definition, the right one. Remember that, in the words of President Andrew Shepard (of the Aaron Sorkin film “The American President”, “America isn’t easy, America is advanced citizenship, you’ve got to want it bad, cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, you want free speech, lets see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs, that you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” Every day, I try to work toward this goal. Some days are easier than others, but I’m continuing to work at it.
(By the way, if you disagree, I’d love to engage in a civil discussion on the topic. I hope that we can still be friends!)