*Saint's Herald 12/2006
Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey
As I write this, the political season is upon us in full bloom. On street corners and in front yards, signs touting candidates and issues have sprung from the ground like toadstools after a heavy rain. Every article reporting news items in newspapers and magazines seems to have attached a political spin, turning seemingly minor incidents into major events. Political ads on television and radio assault our senses with accusatory and conspiratorial voices spewing vitriol and, more often than not, benign facts twisted into inflammatory allegations. From every direction and every side we are bombarded with these hailstones of hate. Voters complain every year about negative campaigning, but innumerable studies have shown that of all the messages of politics assailing our senses, it is the negative ones that stick with us.
In the days before cable news channels and the internet, politics occupied our consciousness only during the 6 months between the primary and general elections. And once the elections were over and the races decided, everyone went back to business as usual. We laughed at Gomer Pyle, The Beverly Hillbillies, Get Smart, and Green Acres, enjoying family-oriented humor completely free of the often pointed political undertones of today. Mission: Impossible, Ironside, and Mannix, returned uninterrupted to one of the three television channels we received and weather and the health of Our Quarterback returned to the primacy of news coverage. The evolution of the electronic media has expanded the time scale of these debates. Now, the so-called “election cycle” is continuous, as issues, some so minor as to be laughable, are now inflated beyond their relative importance and lifted to the level of the “national debate.”
This has even invaded the formerly pristine space of our personal relationships. Nowadays, two people can be having an otherwise cordial, even warm conversation until the revelation that they stand on opposite political sides cools the conversation, and the space between them becomes brittle and cold.
Our world has changed, and we have changed with it. Even things as mundane as a trip to the grocery store has become infused with politics, as shoppers read labels looking for “dolphin safe tuna” and perhaps conducting our own personal boycott against brand names that are connected to support for, or stances against any number of issues.
How did this happen? We used to be a happy people, people who could go through an entire day without encountering over-the-top political activism. Now, it seems we all wear invisible backpacks into which are loaded the dead weight of politics. I think the answer to this lies in the recognition of a fundamental shift in our view of the world and each other.
Once upon a time, our self-esteem, our sense of who and what we were as individuals existed in a very small space. There were three versions of “us:” The person we thought we were, the person our friends and co-workers saw in us, and the instant opinions of us that strangers garnered in a hundred different passing encounters each day. As long as those three visions were in balance and in harmony, we were happy. Yes, the world outside that small circle was often a very tragic and violent place, but we were insulated by that small circle we had drawn around us.
At some point in the past, politics became personal. Issues that we used to hold at an arms length became intertwined with our egos and our sense of self-esteem. So inculcated did they become that a rational discussion of issues became increasingly impossible to have. When someone disagreed with us, suddenly it felt like a personal attack. We became angry and defensive, no longer defending a point of view but that fragile core of our individuality. The response to our response was equally discordant. Leading with our emotions instead of our intellect, rational discussion devolved into high-volume mud-slinging.
What we lost sight of is a fundamental fact of political life. The journey that our individual lives have taken is unique to each one of us. We were raised by different parents in different homes, nurtured in different environments, and the experiences that life delivered along the way was ours and ours alone. The orientation of that life helped to form our political beliefs. Thus what we believe to be right and true is right and true when refracted through the prism of our lives. What others believe to be right and true, is also right and true when refracted through the prism of their life’s experiences. That fact is a fundamental truth of human nature, the very manifestation of our inherent individuality.
Given that truth, it is a little presumptuous to go around demanding that everyone feed our personal insecurities by agreeing completely with us. Instead, I think it is perfectly reasonable when we meet someone who stands on the other side of the fence to acknowledge and respect that difference as a reflection of their journey and not as a deliberate attempt to personally belittle us. There are far too many ways to find common ground, even friendship in the thousands of other things that make us who and what we are. To do so is an exercise in respect and maturity. And out of respect comes friendship; and eventually, Peace.
Don’t get me wrong. Political debate is absolutely essential in a representative republic. It’s How Things Get Decided. But I think that it is possible to carry on that debate in a rational manner and in a civil tone by unplugging the debate from our egos and insecurities and freely acknowledging that differences between individuals are simply an unalterable reality of human nature.
We are no longer just divided politically. We have become, as a nation, completely polarized. We are grouped at opposite ends, separated by the white heat of extremisms. We no longer look for ways to connect, only ways to divide. It is a tragic path that leads to only one irreparable destination.
I have come to admire people who take stands on issues, regardless of whether that stance agrees with mine. As a budding political scientist, I take delight in talking to people who have taken the time and effort to educate themselves on issues. Whether we agree or not, those people are fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities by participating in the process and by going to the polls on Election Day. For me, that is an exciting and engaging thing to see.
The Pharisees once asked Jesus Christ what the greatest commandment in the Law was. In the 22nd chapter of Matthew, Jesus replies:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And in Matthew 5:
“You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
A handful of sticks contain many individual pieces of different lengths and widths, born of different kinds of trees. Yet, despite those differences, those sticks when held together are unbreakable. As the election approaches and we prepare for the inevitable charges and counter-charges that will surface after that Tuesday, perhaps we should make the effort to put politics in its proper place and make the effort to respect and honor differences. We must all act to restore some measure of unity and civility before our nation dissolves into the ashes of hatred.