Does Name-Calling Politics Improve Your Argument?

Robert V. Taylor

This blog first appeared on Huffington Post September 10, 2012

In the polite City of Portland, Oregon, it was impossible not to eavesdrop on the animated conversation at the table next to me. The first grenade among these friends discussing the Ryan budget was “You are an ass***e” quickly followed by, “No, you are an idiot.” Surely we can do better than this in? Our lives and future are at stake.

As the name calling intensified at the table next to me these business professionals were unable to navigate and discuss the deeply held Democratic and Republican positions that they each supported.  I thought of the wisdom Desmond Tutu learned from his father, “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” Wisdom that my fellow diners and our country would do well to imbibe.

Labels of Despair? When we label someone we do two things. We exert control over another person and assume our own superiority and power.  We also dismiss or relegate the person being labeled to a status that is less fully human than our own. It is a combustible mix. The need to label typically emerges from our own insecurity, despair about our situation or a perceived threat from another.

There is no shortage of despair among millions of Americans who are unemployed and apparently unemployable. But the friends at the table next to me were, judging from their comments, successful business people fully employed. Their labels of despair revealed the paucity of their arguments. Vibrant healthy discussions of ideas and policies are only possible when they replace labels of despair.

Silo Friends? As they continued to lob verbal grenades that were no match for the artful meals in front of them one declared, “I just don’t know if you can be my friend anymore.”  The comment brought home the truth of the studies that reveal an increasing polarization among Americans.  It is a lackluster way of being human to turn inward by choosing to have Red or Blue, FOX or MSNBC silo friends.

With silo friends we declare retreat from engaging with the world. It may serve to bolster the desire conflict avoidance but it also proclaims that we do not need one another in all of our differences.  Instead it is possible to lower our voices and engage in the stories and experiences that lead us to positions on the budget, the freedom to marry, freedom of choice and immigration. It’s in the stories that we our common humanity is revealed because stories are authentic expressions of our humanness. It is that common humanity and citizenship that political policies enhance or detract from.

Parallel Universes? I wasn’t sure if the spicy food or dismissals would cause heartburn for those at the table next to me.  When one declared yet again, “You are an idiot” it was rejoined with, “No, you are a f…ing idiot.” I wondered what parallel universes these supposed friends inhabit. Their apparent business successes revealed a strikingly different lack of willingness to find common ground and dignify difference.

The significant policy differences and visions for the United States laid out by the two Presidential tickets invites robust conversation. The unwillingness to honor a position with which you disagree is creating parallel universes instead of dismissiveness for many. That serves only those who would not like the full impact of their policies fully revealed. If the political goal is to limit the term and effectiveness of a President or elected official by creating and selling the notion of parallel universe’s we are in for sustained stasis and conflict. Such a churlish reality is not predestined if we make choices to not indulge it and expect real discussion of what it means to be Americans. The hallmarks of our generosity and democracy are at stake.

Happiness or Pain Virus? Those at the table next to me left the restaurant angry and fuming at one another.  I wondered how their inability to have real conversation reflected on the collective pursuit of happiness as a national pastime collided with the pain and worry about the future that is on the minds of so many Americans. A pain and worry that we seem determined not to name, or at least not too often or publicly.

Boomers have a propensity for seeking happiness while Generations X and Y more freely acknowledge the realities of pain and worry and how that connects with happiness. Our American resilience and ingenuity is best served when those factors are addressed, not through the politics of disingenuous avoidance of them, but with compassionate respect.  Those around me were resolute in their avoidance about what the competing experiences of pain, happiness and worry present as opportunities. Authenticity invites solutions which spark human hope. It is not too late for us to expect and demand that in this political season.

As those at the table next ot me got up to leave my relief at the prospect of enjoying the rest of my meal was put on hold as one of them said, “You know I can’t imagine how we can still be friends.”  It’s time for us to imagine a friendship rooted in difference, respect and a oneness that we will keep reminding people of or a further tearing apart of our shared humanity. The “A…hole” politics and language diminishes all. It’s up to us to model something different that builds up.

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