Friday, March 13, 2009

The Tone of Political Debate in America

I spend probably too much time following a number of issues in the news with which I have been involved as an activist over the years: the fate of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, campaign finance reform, health care reform, the war in Iraq, corporate governance, fishing conditions on the Chesapeake Bay (!), and others. Google News Alerts is both a blessing and a curse in this regard, for my inbox is daily deluged with links to news articles that I usually cannot resist reading. As everyone reading this must know, most on-line news organizations now offer opportunities to comment on the story at hand, and lots of people avail themselves of this opportunity. This interactive on-line feature provides the potential for a wonderful public forum, where alternative perspectives and opinions might be aired and explored. But all too often these venues are dominated by polarized spitting matches between people who sound like they have listened to too much Rush Limbaugh or watched too much Keith Olbermann.

I find this trend to be very disturbing: it seems dehumanizing at its core when the rhetoric descends into insults, name-calling, stereotyping, and vitriol. Not that I haven’t laughed from time to time at some of the more outrageous tirades, like Al Franken’s book a few years ago, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.” But what we see in today’s talk radio hosts and TV commentators—mostly on the right—is not an attempt at humor, but hate speech, pure and simple. Embarrassed leaders like Republican Party Chair Michael Steele may try to make light of it by calling such demagogues “entertainers,” but the demagogues themselves take it a great deal more seriously, as demonstrated by Rush Limbaugh last week rejecting that demeaning title (entertainer) and quickly forcing an apology from Steele. Rush, evidently, relishes the de facto role as party leader that Rahm Emanuel has so cynically (or cleverly) thrust upon him.

Political gamesmanship aside, however, what is truly disturbing here is that millions of people are apparently taking license from their political opinion leaders to indulge in the same kind of disrespect and hate-mongering in their own forays into the public square. With Rush Limbaugh and scores of other talk show hosts legitimizing a sub-basement standard of “political dialogue” for more than 20 million listeners, it shouldn’t be too surprising, perhaps, that unreasoned contempt and overt bigotry have become increasingly common in on-line forums. But it is disturbing, nonetheless—especially when people on the other side of the issue at hand fall into the same obnoxious behavior. Is this healthy? Is it, perhaps, a harmless way for people to vent their extreme frustrations in a failing economy and a world where “moral certainty” increasingly leads to devastating outcomes? Actually, I think it is unhealthy, like a cancer in our social fabric. I try to dispassionately call it out when I see it and to set an example of evenhanded calm in debate (though I fail at this from time to time), but I don’t really have a clue how to stop it. Wasn’t this one of those things we were supposed to learn in Kindergarten?

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