Shortly after my mind started spinning at the manipulation of Twain’s words, a tragedy unfolded in Tucson, Arizona in which 19 people were shot with 6 killed by a deranged young man. Almost immediately mud started being flung from both ends of the political spectrum blaming the other for their inflammatory language causing the incident.
It started a discussion about the lack of civil discourse in this country, particularly in the political arena. Clearly, it is not reasonable to point the finger at anyone other than the perpetrator as being responsible for what happened. However, all the accusations flying back and forth tended to reinforce the point that our civil discourse has become ugly. It doesn’t seem that we have the option of agreeing to respectfully disagree any longer. It must escalate to an angry tone with name-calling. We can’t just believe that there are different ways of thinking about how to solve problems or even what we identify as problems. Those that we disagree with must be evil, stupid and/or unpatriotic and probably all three.
Naturally, the initial calls for civility have quickly disappeared and the nasty rhetoric is back in full swing just two months after the shootings. What is to be done? With a 24-hour news cycle broadcasting the worst of the worst in inflammatory speech, how do we avoid its influence and throw water on the flames? How do we maintain righteous indignation in the face of wrong while refraining from contributing to the uncivil discourse that is seemingly everywhere?
I’ll admit I started bristling when I was first called unpatriotic for having a different political opinion than some others. And after hearing it several dozen times, well, we won’t get into my unladylike response just now. How to defuse such things? How to opt out while maintaining one’s own integrity and remaining engaged? Clearly the media is not going to tone things down. And neither are the politicians. So that leaves the rest of us.
Perhaps a first step could be to reduce or eliminate adjectives when discussing someone with whom we disagree. No longer is that politician/commentator that stupid, lying, evil SOB. He or she is Job-title What’s-his-name and he or she did not tell the truth about X. Maybe it is time to act like Sgt. Friday on Dragnet and use “just the facts.” Naturally, there are people who don’t care what the facts are because they know better and their agenda requires that they not acknowledge any pesky little things like facts. In which case, why bother to talk to them about it any way?
Secondly, we can recognize and acknowledge that most folks on both sides of the political chasm believe that they have the best intentions to work out the best solution to a problem and they are not attempting to do evil things. Whether or not their beliefs are justified is another matter, but we need to stop assuming that the other side is acting from nefarious motives. The person who cuts your hair is not evil just because they prefer a socialist dogcatcher to one from the Bull Moose Party. I have absolutely no doubt that there are some folks that are acting from bad motives, but they are not likely to be among the people you run into on a daily basis.
You may have noticed that these two suggestions are aimed purely at how we perceive someone with whom we disagree and how we respond to them. But isn’t that truly all we can do about the situation? Resolve to not be part of the problem? Maybe, if enough people refused to play along with the status quo, it would spread like a cold until enough people caught it to ignite a spark of civility across our sadly polarized society. At the very least, it could make us, as individuals, feel calmer in our daily lives. And who knows where that might lead?
As I said earlier, words are powerful things. We should be careful how we wield them.