As we move closer to the election, feelings become stronger and political passions worm their way closer to the surface. It becomes harder and harder to have a discussion about politics without increasingly sharp words being exchanged.
Words matter. Mean-spirited, unnecessarily harsh words can leave a permanent scar. At our jobs, and in our daily lives, we somehow manage (at least, most of the time) to express and discuss things in a civil way. We might “disagree” with a co-worker, or “see things differently” than a friend, but we typically don’t call people “liars” or accuse them of standing with Stalin, Hitler, and Torquemada as among the most malign people in history. We refrain because we don’t want anyone to say such hurtful things about us and we know that such statements can cause long-time relationships to die in a blaze of bitterness. I’m happy to note that, on this obscure family blog, where our posters and frequent commenters — elroyjones, Mike N, Cousin Jeff, and Marcel, among others — clearly occupy different points on the political spectrum, we can express our differences without flame-throwing or rancor.
I contrast this little world with the political and internet worlds, where grossly excessive, over-the-top overreactions are so absurdly commonplace. In those worlds, simply failing to provide the detailed context a writer might think is necessary — say, about the unadopted recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission — can convert a perfectly accurate, limited statement of fact into a “lie.” I’m not sure how I would react if one of my friends or colleagues accused me of “lying” under those same circumstances, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like it.
I know there are those who think that such charges and counter-charges are just part of “the game,” and if you want to swing in the spotlight of politics you just need to suck it up and develop a thick skin. I don’t care how hardened you are, however — no one wants to be called a liar, or a communist, or a person who desires nothing more than to put people “back in chains.” Americans often bemoan how inert and ineffective our political institutions are; I’d wager that part of the reason is that it is incredibly difficult to sit across the table from somebody who just publicly accused you of being a liar or a fool, put aside your anger at what you consider to be an unfair charge, and work together to strike a reasonable compromise.
We’d all be better off if we toned it down and strove for civil discourse that won’t leave our country bruised, bloody, and bitterly divided when the morning after the election comes — whatever the outcome.