We hear a lot about how politics is unnecessarily harsh these days. I was reminded of it recently via both Reddit and Digg. Both linked to reports of what happened during a debate between Al Franken and Ann Coulter. Here’s the opening of the speech plus discussion on Al Franken’s web site. You can read another account with discussion on Free Republic.
If you read the comments on each site, particularly focusing on the comments about Al Franken by Republicans or about Ann Coulter by Democrats, you’ll probably note that they can be intensely personal and rather nasty. I’ve seen (in other places) people of both sides note how the other side constantly uses personal attacks. Reading these discussions makes it pretty obvious that no side has a monopoly on that sort of thing.
I can come up with possible reasons pretty quickly. They might include:
1. The blending of the public and the personal that Joshua Myerowitz suggests that technological communication promotes in his book No Sense of Place. Personal attacks on politicians are a logical result.
2. It could simply be that online communication makes it easier to be rude.
3. it could be that political parties and activist groups demonize the other side too successfully, making rational communication hard.
4. It might be that harshness of political rhetoric goes in cycles and soon this too shall pass.
That being said, it may be that imagining our time is somehow abnormal in the harshness of the rhetoric that’s inaccurate. I always heard that a person should avoid discussing religion and politics if you want to have a pleasant conversation.
Anyway, here’s a list of what I like in a conversation about politics:
1. Discussing the pros and cons of an issue, but, allowing for the possibility that you might be wrong or haven’t considered certain aspects of a problem.
2. Avoiding excessive language. By this I’m not meaning swearing. I mean overly broad statements about the worth of an idea or the worthlessness of a particular perspective (“Well of course you think that, you’re a Republican/Democrat/Scientologist…” or “Bush/Clinton is evil/has no morals/has bodies buried under the East Lawn”).
3. Allowing people to save face. Saying “I told you so” or making it clear that someone with a particular perspective is an idiot means it will take that much longer (if ever) for them to tell you that they’ve changed their mind. Who wants to admit to being a fool?
4. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Politics is something people feel passionate about. Sometimes they say something stupid while promoting their beliefs. So does everyone.
I don’t write this under the illusion that it will change anything, but would very much like to talk about politics without having other people go into massive rants in front of me.