Tuesday, March 08, 2005

If You Can't Stand to Be Civil

To my pleasant surprise, The North Star has actually become an active discussion group. As usual, though, the people who post most frequently are those who enjoy partisan politics. I happen to know from private emails and conversations that others in the group are actually a little inhibited, bemused, and in one case outraged by the emails that land in their mailboxes. It's not because the posts are offensive. On the contrary, by the standards of most present-day political debate they are models of civility. But because it involves power--who has it, who doesn't, and for what purposes power will be mobilized and used--political discussion by its nature can push people's buttons.

I will give an example. A social worker read some of the posts concerning Senate Bill 24 and wrote me a withering email about her impatience with "luxury problems." Most of the people with whom she works would love nothing better than to be faced with the "problem" of whether a state law is required to keep professors from mouthing off too much in class. They can't get access to vocational training, much less college. Her clients are instead trying to figure out how to keep food in their bellies and a roof over their heads once assistance from the government runs out. We can tell ourselves fables about how her clients are bums who should have done this or ought to do that. She knows her clients as people whose lives are as complex as anyone's and whose struggles are not so easily overcome. Well, apparently they'd better overcome them in 36 months, or else. Or else what? We don't have to worry about that. The social worker does. And for the clients, it's like staring down the barrel of a gun.

That's one of my frustrations with political dialogue, even the one I am proud to have played a role in fostering. Political problems are more easily "solved" if they can be caricatured. If I believed what Rush Limbaugh says about liberals, for instance, I'd hate them too. If I believed what many liberals say about social conservatives, I'd think that a theocracy was just over the horizon. The people who like to bat around political issues are intelligent and often well-informed, but their information and interests tend to be of a certain type. Often they'd rather discuss abstract political ideas--such as "I want government out of my life"--rather than explain how they want these ideas to be operationalized. The person who wrote the sentence just quoted is a student at a state-supported university who wants to have a political career in, presumably, a government. How does that square?

It would be refreshing, I think, if those who enjoy political debate were more solicitous of those who don't, but who are no less affected by the issues at stake. It would be even more refreshing if those who sit on the sidelines spoke up, asked questions, voiced comments. Of course, the "demolition derby" model of political dialogue makes that a risky proposition, and there are those who seem to think that politics is at all times a hardball proposition: If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But I think it's about time we talked back to that model of political discourse. What makes it better than a discourse based on courtesy and mutual respect? How is it that the lessons every kid in kindergarten is expected to learn should not be practiced in this most grown-up of conversations?


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