June 2010

Keep it civil

By Gail Binkly

A couple of months ago, a longtime friend of mine who happens to be conservative forwarded me an e-mail slamming Michelle Obama for alleged transgressions. No point in repeating them, because shortly thereafter, my friend sent another e-mail saying she'd checked out the claims on snopes.com and they were largely untrue.

The incident made me think of the flap that occurred when the Veterans' Day parade in Cortez was held on Montezuma Avenue rather than Main Street. Numerous letters in the Cortez Journal accused the city of Cortez of being “unpatriotic” and shunting the veterans onto a lesser street.

The organizer of the parade wrote in to say he had chosen to have the parade on Montezuma, but letters continued to come in accusing the city of disrespecting veterans.

All of this made me wonder: Do we always have to assume the worst about each other?

There is no question that the nation is deeply divided on political and moral issues and that the discussions have sometimes gone beyond “heated” into the realm of ugly and rancorous. The periodic calls for civil dialogue go largely unheeded. Civil dialogue isn’t nearly as exciting as people booing elected officials and crying, “You lie!” to the President.

Locally, the animosity pours forth in the editorial pages of the Journal, where for a time the majority of letters seemed to have been written from a template:

You [right-wing conservatives/ Communistic liberals] are all alike. Why don't you take your head out of the sand and listen to the FACTS? Everyone knows that global warming is [the worst threat to humanity ever/the worst fraud perpetrated on humanity ever]. But you pursue your ideology based on emotion rather than REASON. Wake up and smell the coffee!

Clearly, everyone is having a jolly good time feeling angry. And I know it’s futile to call for an end to heated debate. Disagreements have been part of politics since the world began, and I doubt the dialogue is truly worse now than in the past — just remember the Vietnam era.

But I do think the bile ought not to spill over into personal life. It’s one thing to accuse someone of faulty thinking. It’s quite another to tell lies to make your case or to leap to the worst possible conclusion about others in the absence of supporting facts (as when Rush Limbaugh speculated that environmentalists had sabotaged the Deepwater Horizon oil rig).

And it’s even worse to threaten, foment or commit violence against people just because you don't share their views. There is a very fine line between passion and hatefulness, and it’s crossed with frequency.

My own husband has experienced some of this “personalization” of political disagreements during his career as a journalist. When he first came to work at the Cortez Sentinel, some people, one in particular, tried to get him fired because they didn’t like his opinion columns. Once, a man driving a truck swerved toward David as he was crossing the street and shouted, “I’d be doing this community a favor if I killed you!”

More recently, David was leaning against a shelf in a local store, in such agony from a pinched nerve in his spine that he was close to passing out, when a man we didn’t even know walked up and sneered: “What's the matter? Are you HIGH?” (This presumably because David is an outspoken critic of the great Drug War.)

The ironic thing is we later came to have civil and respectful acquaintanceships with the men involved in the first two instances, which demonstrates that arguments that seem very bitter at one point may not matter much in the great scheme of things.

I’m not advocating some sort of vacuous love and acceptance of everything (a la “Peace and tranquility under Landru!” — remember, Trekkies?). Certainly there are views so outrageous they can’t be respected. When it comes to racism or bigotry, cruelty or torture, our tolerance should be zero.

But these days people label as intolerable every single thought that doesn’t conform with their own. Is it really necessary to postulate, as the radio talk-show hosts do, that all the folks who would like to see universal health care are myrmidons spawned by Satan? Can’t people have honest disagreements about taxation or deep-sea oildrilling without it being elevated to the level of a Biblical conflict? Surely there has to be some allowance for simple differences of opinion.

I know a number of conservatives or Libertarians whom I hold in very high regard. I don’t share all their views and they doubtless regard me as misguided, but they are kind and courteous: the gentleman who helped me with a critical home repair right after David’s back surgery, the woman who spoke words of comfort when my mother died, the couple (now in Idaho) who remain two of the most generous folks I’ve ever known.

When I came to Cortez nearly two decades ago, my views were pretty formulaic. I thought environmentalists were good, loggers and ranchers were bad, and the police were mostly authoritarian zealots. Since then, I’ve learned there are a lot of grays in the world. I’ve seen some selfish environmentalists and altruistic ranchers and hard-working cops who take a lot of undeserved flak.

Mostly I’ve learned that life is a process of learning, and I’ve come to be suspicious of people who think they have all the answers. This is a complicated world with close to 7 billion people, and it’s delusional to believe, “I, the Great So-and-So of Montezuma County, have the correct views on everything!”

So go ahead and debate. But remember that we’re all groping, imperfect creatures, and that most folks of that different political stripe have a lot in common with those who think the “right” way. They cherish their children and pets, enjoy a good joke, grieve when they lose a loved one, and occasionally wonder what it’s all about.

Maybe, once in a while, we can allow that people on The Other Side aren’t necessarily evil (a word that ought to be reserved for Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and their ilk) — just, well, different.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.