Saturday, October 4, 2008


Okay, I usually stay out of politics on this blog. That's for my personal friends-only account, not one attached to a business name where people of all different political persuasions could be stopping by (oh, yeah, I am so optimistic).

But. I've been listening to the election rhetoric, and to what my students say and what I overhear on the bus. And so I am breaking my political moratorium to ask:

What is wrong with all of us??

When did it become okay to dismiss an entire group of people because they disagree? I hear people from both ends of the political spectrum saying, gleefully, that their political opponents will not like what is going to happen when Obama or McCain becomes president, as if all policy can be reduced to a partisan poke at the values and goals of the opposition. I hear people talking about the "out of touch liberal intellectuals" and the "ignorant fundamentalists" and "Joe Six-Pack" and "liberal elitists" and "average American," and in a phrase dismissing anything the target group has to say. In effect, what anyone who uses this tactic is saying is that people who disagree with you can be derided, dismissed, and ignored.

When did we become an us-versus them society? When did scoring points off our political opponents become more important than finding a common ground to begin working for mutually beneficial things? When did we forget that we ALL live in this country? That other people can add up the very same facts as we have and come to different conclusions ... and that doing so does not make them stupid or selfish? That the fundamentalist and the atheist, the liberal and the conservative, the country folk and the city folk ALL bleed the same color, and have feelings and worries and fears and joys, just like us? That people who aren't just like us are still humans and fellow Americans? When did what we individually want become so important that we have become willing to sacrifice others to get it?

Although I teach European history, I give my students one of the following exercises during election years, as the first night's introduction to argument and the use of evidence. In one, I ask them to take the opposite political stance, and think how they would convince someone to vote for that approach. That means they have to understand the other folks' arguments, and the logic behind those arguments. They have to represent the other stance fairly and honestly--no reducing the conservatives or liberals to straw men that can be blown down with little effort by any "right thinking" person. And they have to use non-partisan, non-judgemental language. They can't subtly indicate by language or tone that they disagree.

In the other exercise, I divide the students into teams--Republicans and Democrats. I try to put as many Dems on the Republican team as I can, and vice versa. Each team has an hour in the library or computer lab, and then they have to debate their position (on a predefined set of issues, so that each team prepares well) with the other team. Again--they have to use evidence, they can't resort to name-calling, to disparaging language, or to solely emotional arguments. I don't want to hear that someone's voting for Obama because he's a black, no matter what his positions are; I don't want to hear that someone's voting for McCain because he was a POW, no matter what his positions are. I want to hear reasons based on an understanding of the positions of each candidate, and the assumptions that lie behind those positions (such as, "We should have as little government interference in free enterprise as possible," or "Only big government can protect Americans against big business" or other ideas).

The goal is to get people to listen to and understand people on the other side of the debate. The more we insulate ourselves from people who don't agree with us, and the more we dehumanize those people by our language and our inattention, the more we will fail as a nation. When we understand the others--even if we still disagree wholeheartedly--we can begin to talk. Yet what I hear in politics, over and over, is the adolescent assumption that understanding requires agreement; any disagreement is proof that one doesn't get it.

We ALL live here--conservative, liberal, black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, fundamentalist or atheist or theologically liberal, male, female, bisexual, transsexual, metrosexual, non-sexual, lesbian or gay, married, single, young, middle aged, old, urban, rural, suburban, educated, uneducated, ill, healthy, green or not, military or peacenik ... the list goes on.

And none of those names represent a whole group of people. Copperwise has a lovely essay on why "Joe Six-Pack" is inaccurate and meaningless. She's aiming it at Governor Palin, but the same could be said for any name for "THEM" by either conservative or liberal.

I am "THEM." You are "THEM,"

We are all human beings, and my dearest hope is that we remember that in time.

End rant.

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