I’m very concerned about the growth of what I would call the radical right in American politics. (I’m pretty sure these folks don’t consider themselves the radical right. They most likely think they’re the mainstream.)
One of my Facebook friends recently joined a group called “Sarah Palin is a Fucking Retard.” As emotionally satisfying as that might be, I don’t think name-calling is helpful. On the contrary — all we accomplish by name-calling is to insure that the extreme polarization of views will continue. Nor do I think much is to be gained by sitting around with our friends, nodding heavily, and saying, “Ain’t it awful?”
If there is any hope at all, it lies in taking a different sort of action.
I’d like to suggest that starting an open-ended dialog on any and all of the hot-button issues of the day would be a Really Good Thing. I also think it’s pretty clear that the folks who think Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are insightful commentators are not going to initiate the dialog. For one thing, most of them are ill-equipped for it. For another, they’ve been told over and over that they’re 100% right, which if it were true would render dialog unnecessary.
If there is to be a dialog, it’s up to us to initiate it. Here are my suggestions:
First, be ready and willing to talk about political, social, and moral issues at any time. Make a particular point of seeking out those with whom you’re pretty sure you’ll disagree. Nothing is to be gained, and much is to be lost, by remaining politely silent.
Second, remain friendly and calm at all times. Resist the temptation to raise your voice. Do not wave your arms. Above all, no name-calling! You are permitted to say, “I’m sorry — I find what you’re saying rather upsetting.”
Third, look on all of your conversations on these issues as a way of educating yourself. You may even learn something that will modify your views in some way. At the very least, you’ll learn more about what other people’s views are. When they mention facts (or what they have been told are facts), don’t rush to contradict them, and especially if you’re not rock-solid about your own sources of information. Instead, say, “That’s interesting. Where did you learn that?”
Fourth, do your homework. If you’re going to talk about immigration, education, or health care, take the time to learn what’s actually going on in the world around you. Avoid sweeping generalizations. Rely more on basic research into the facts than on what you read in left-leaning opinion pieces, no matter how cogent or insightful you may think those opinion pieces are. Avoid saying things like, “Everybody knows that’s complete nonsense.” Instead, say something like, “Some of the people I know have other ideas about that. Maybe it would be useful for us all to pool our ideas and learn more about the subject.”
Fifth, begin (and continue) with the assumption that the people you’re talking to are basically kind and decent and want the same things you do. We all want to live in safe, pleasant communities. We all want our children to get a good education. We all value personal freedom. Where we differ is in our view of how these goals are to be achieved. Look for the similarities, not the differences.
If a whole bunch of people engage in this kind of dialog with their friends and neighbors, I predict that several interesting things will happen. Some of the people you talk to will begin to modify their views. You will be modeling for them the always worthwhile process of careful thinking, which is not something they will have learned from Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. Even if they don’t change their views, they may be less inclined to demonize those who disagree, because they will have seen that you’re a friendly person who shares common concerns, not a rabid monster.
And if they just can’t manage to engage in dialog — if they insist on mouthing hateful slogans and flinging insults, if they’re entirely unable to listen — then they’ll have a good chance to see their own out-of-control behavior for what it is, because you won’t be doing anything to provoke it. They may learn something about themselves.