Last weekend, an elderly gentleman from West Tennessee whom I love and normally respect -- with whom I've served at numerous short-term mission camps over the years -- posted a couple of political jokes to his Facebook account. I found the jokes mean-spirited, a little racist, and a little sexist. More to the point, they weren't really political; only one punchline had anything even remotely to do with actual issues. The rest were directed at people, and in one case the target was the spouse of an elected official, whom some might consider an innocent bystander.
Disappointingly, most of the people who commented found the jokes hilarious. One person, however, a stranger to me, posted that he considered them offensive and that he thought our mutual friend was better than that. I agreed wholeheartedly, and tried to figure out a way to say so without hurting my friend's feelings.
The critical comment was gone the next day; I don't know if the commenter removed it or if our mutual friend removed it.
Passion in politics is a good thing. I don't begrudge anyone at either end of the political spectrum the right to speak forcefully, using rhetoric, satire or sarcasm, about important matters. That's what makes our country stronger.
Far too often, however, we're vilifying individuals or groups with whom we disagree. It's one thing to say "I hate liberalism" or "I hate conservatism." I'm not sure either is a particularly useful statement, but they are at least focused on ideas. The problem arrives when you extend that to say "I hate liberals" or "I hate conservatives." I was in a play once with a man who had something along the lines of "I hate liberals" as his motto on Facebook.
And it's even worse to focus our bile and anger at individuals, to dehumanize them and turn them into symbols of our anger and frustration.
The fact of the matter is that we're living in a complex and ever-changing world. There are ideas from either end of the spectrum that are going to be important; there are some issues where the liberals are closer to right and some where the conservatives are closer to right. Tax-paying, patriotic citizens from either end of the spectrum are going to have to live together in this country for decades to come.
There are times when one must stand firm on a moral principle, but there are many other times when the only way to govern is to compromise. Our nation was founded on compromise. Our founding fathers had deeply-felt differences on how our new nation should be governed, and in the end both sides had to give a little in order to come up with a workable government. The Constitution itself presumes the need for compromise. It creates checks and balances, such as a House of Representatives with two-year terms to be more quickly-responsive to the voters, and a Senate with six-year terms to allow for a more deliberative and careful approach.
Liberals and conservatives like to stereotype each other in ways that demean and discount the other side. After all, no truly patriotic and sensible American could possibly disagree with me, so the other side must be full of degenerates or leeches or blindly-following sheep.
That's unfair, in either direction. There are smart, patriotic and sensible people at either end of the spectrum, and there are corrupt, self-serving and unthinking people at either end of the spectrum. Both liberals and conservatives have worthwhile ideas. A lot of the differences have to do with how each group sees the world; we're agreed on the ends, but if we see the problem and the players differently we're going to come up with dramatically different ways to reach those ends.
Political slander, of course, is nothing new. The founding fathers, and the generation that followed them, said nasty things about each other as well. But today's technology seems to amplify such charges to a dangerous extent.
The rise of talk radio and pundit-driven cable news channels has made things even worse. There are commentators (again, at either end of the spectrum) whose business plans depend on anger. For these pundits, right and left, anger is what keeps people tuning in, and so it must be maintained at all costs. Every action by one of those people on the other side must be interpreted in the least favorable fashion. Any hint of negative news involving the other side -- even if it hasn't been confirmed -- must be transformed from a molehill into a mountain, and the news must be trumpeted at the loudest possible decibel level. If you can attribute the questionable news to some third party source, of course, you can then distance yourself from it later when it turns out to be untrue or wildly misinterpreted. So much the better, because you know the damage has been done, and the profitable anger has been maintained.
What we have to do, as a nation, is find a way to talk to each other, to disagree passionately about ideas but shake hands afterward. And I think even things as simple as mean-spirited jokes contribute to the dehumanization of political opponents.
The future of our country depends upon us finding a way to work together.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.