Friday, October 17, 2008

(In)Civility in Public Discourse

I have been an official Obama supporter since October 1, 2007. Some right-leaning friends still feel an urgent need to aggressively attempt to convert me from Obama to McCain. In the last month or two, their arguments have included the following:
  • Obama is evil. Obama is a socialist. Obama will raise taxes. Obama is a friend of terrorists. Obama will spend your tax dollars on abortions. Obama and the Democrats got us into this economic crisis. We don't really know who Obama is or what he stands for. Obama never talks specifically about what he would do as president.
  • Obama lacks experience. He's unqualified to be president. What has he accomplished? What has Joe Biden accomplished? Joe Biden is a liar. I don't trust Obama because of the people he associates with and the people who were his mentors. "Ayers" yada yada, "Wright" yada yada, "Rezko" yada yada.
  • He won't end the war in Iraq, he'll just move it Afghanistan. The war will never end. Read your Bible.
  • I don't like his wife. She's just an angry black woman. Obama is a Muslim. He'll get assassinated the first time he goes to a Middle East country because they consider him to be an infidel. How could he have gone to that church for 20 years? That shows bad judgment, or else he agrees with everything Wright said. Obama "had sex with his best friend and promotes kids to experiment." (I don't even know what this means.)
I read articles from across the political spectrum. I try to keep myself informed. I like talking about politics--but I don't like feeling attacked. Do you notice that many of the arguments above are discussion-stoppers? Are flat-out hysterical, or exaggerated, or twisted, or unprovable? They're not, for the most part, rational arguments in a point-counterpoint. They're not legitimate concerns of a fair-minded opponent.

What I want to know is, why can't we just disagree about this? I have asked this very question, and one friend replied, "We can agree to disagree. I'm just sending you the facts that Obama isn't." I asked her to stop.

Is it just me, or are people angrier about the election this year than they usually are? I have seen lots of anger from the right--both in person and in the media--but I realize that conservatives claim to see just as much or more anger coming from Democrats. (Some minimize the anger from the right as "a few over-the-line catcalls." Uh-huh.)

The Washington Post reported on the "pandemonium" that broke out in Prince George's County, Maryland when a local hotel put up a McCain/Palin sign. The conservative NewsBusters headlined this story as "Angry Democrats Threaten Boycott of Maryland Hotel With McCain Sign", and used phrases such as "angry," "enraged," "strong-arm tactic," and "vilification" to describe the response of the county's Obama-supporting residents--but if you read the Post story, you don't encounter any of those extreme expressions. In trying to vilify Obama supporters, NB instead discredited itself with hyperbole.

Whatever--it is nasty on both sides. Civility is a lost art. The best we can do is a thin--and I do mean skeletal--veneer of decorum at a public debate.

But wait: I love this measured opinion piece from the Washington Post coming out in support of Obama. There's nothing mean or disrespectful in it about McCain, and the analysis of Obama's qualifications is balanced and not exaggerated. I haven't checked--is there a similar piece taking the opposite position? I'll post the link in an update if you have one.

This is how the candidates should talk to one another, and about one another; this is how we should talk to one another: with fairness, integrity, and civility.

End of sermon.


The Little League Coach said...

It is all in your perspective. I read a great piece on this from a travel coach who felt that his teams every year were getting worse. (ok, I know you are trying to figure out how I am going to make this fit into your discussion, stay with me)

His point was, he had been w/ his 12U team now for 2 years. His daughter was graduating to 14U. He stayed w/ his 10 year old daughter who was now moving up to 12U. This team was way worse than his prior team had been at this age, what was wrong?

Nothing was wrong. In fact, this team actually performed better than his prior team did its first year. What had changed? HIS perspective.

This is applicable to this year's election. What has changed about it? Our perspective. Do you really think this is more contentious than when Reagan ran? What about Clinton and Bush? That campaign was nuts as the documentary The War Room demonstrates. Who couldn't help but fall in love with competing campaign managers that were sleeping together!

Anyway, I tire of this all the time and see it daily. How many times have you heard "kids are worse now than they ever have been". But the people who say that used to wear leather jackets, slick their hair back, carry switch-blades around, cigarettes in their t-shirts and have gang fights involving chains and bats. Not to mention the drag races!

The kids today? In my neighborhood they actually climbed on the building of a roof! You would think it was the end of the world! The outrage! Judgment and perspective is the problem.

People are way to quick to judge other's with very limited knowledge of their position or actions. Talking heads make a living prejudging. It is having a negative effect on our society.

Perspective changes daily in everyone on the planet. My 8 year old son learns new things every day that shape and mold him. He no longer looks at the world the way he did yesterday, so he feels the world must have changed drastically. It did not, his perspective did.

My 2 cents, which is worth about as much as you paid for it.

Dave said...

I agree with the coach. Today, we look at Abraham Lincoln as nearly a saint. but as a civil war buff, I've spent a lot of time studying the election of 1864. It was far meaner than today's contest. Lincoln was called names and treated far worse than even George Bush.

Elections in my opinion have never been more civil. At least now that the web is around, we can find out the truth in any statement that the candidates make.

Just remember this. On November 4th the election will take place. Both parties will abide by the decision of the people. And the republic will endure.

Christopher said...

I aim for accuracy and disregard platform. It helps a lot to point out the factually inconsistent statements in some of the emails broadcast for either campaign. As soon as the facts in one of these fusillades are disputed clearly and with authority, the thing usually slows down in it's trek across the internet. I think it's important to respond to them when they abuse one's reason. I got the one about Chicago being worse than Iraq in terms of the murder rate. It took me 45 minutes, but I crafted a rigorously documented and verified explanation of why this was not only not factual but somewhat insulting as well. I replied to all and got several emails back thanking me for making the argument.