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A man I’ve known for many years recently told me that he no longer wants to have anything to do with me. He accused “my kind” of being responsible for the 50 million deaths incurred during WWII, the turmoil we endured from the Cold War, the more than 50,000 deaths during the Vietnam War, the collapse of America’s moral infrastructure, the decline of the nuclear family and finally for the 9/11 attack.
He summarized his explosive outburst by telling me that he was sick of my “anti-American pacifist left wing liberal hippie drivel.”
I found this type-casting very strange indeed. I mean, I don’t even own a tie-dyed shirt.
Granted, this man and I were never drinking buddies but we were always able to civilly discuss any subject, no matter how controversial. In poetic terms of how I was taught to argue, we always agreed to agreeably disagree. Our differences on politics had little to do with our personal feelings toward each other. But when I brought up the subject of bringing our troops home from Iraq, he went nonlinear.
Now, I have a graduate-level education in mathematics, and so when I say nonlinear, trust me – his chaotic dynamics were in complete disorder. Also, I think he bent his asymptote.
Another person I know is angry at me for my stance on firearms. Well, angry doesn’t quite describe his feelings. Irate, furious, enraged … where’s my thesaurus? He thinks I’ve lost my mind when I tell him that I support the right to bear arms. How liberal can I be if I want criminals freely roaming the streets with grenade launchers, right?
Our nation has always been one of outspoken opinions. The myth of the great silent majority always made me laugh. Where exactly were all those silent people hiding?
Since its inception, this country has fostered strong opinions and has nurtured debate. As they said in colonial days, a healthy debate a day keeps the king away.
But times have changed. Now, you’re either for the war or you’re for the terrorists. You either support a woman’s right to choose or you want all women barefoot and pregnant. You either want to build a wall on the Mexican border or you want to open up a store selling welcome mats for illegal aliens. It’s here or there, in or out, the good guys or the bad guys.
You’re either for us or against us! There’s no debate on the subject.
The lines drawn between opposing sides on every issue are becoming ridiculously thin, allowing no middle ground whatsoever. Whatever happened to enjoying a good debate? What would Lincoln and Douglas have done if they could only speak to people who already agreed with their side of an issue?
Hubert H. Humphrey once said, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate.” This is long past wisdom and now words are used specifically to divide rather than unite our country. Consider the naming of the “Patriot Act.” What does it say about you if you are against it? Clearly, you are not a patriot! You hate America. You support the enemy!
This is the mentality of today’s political arena, in which it is more important how one says something rather than what they are actually saying. How many weeks of airtime were spent on dissecting the single word “bitter”?
Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that our leaders aren’t particularly good at listening and they’re even worse at talking. When President Bush is stumbling through a sentence, I find myself yelling at the television set, “Use a verb!”
So anyway, what’s the problem? Why can’t we discuss those things we disagree on without it becoming a personal attack? Why has it become so un-American to disagree? Freedom of speech has little value if you’re only free to speak in unison.
Can we talk?
Or more importantly, can we listen?
Talking is easy enough, but listening to someone else talk can be difficult, even painful at times. And yet, this is the most important of all American virtues.
How else can we agree to disagree is we don’t first listen so as to know what it is we’re debating about? This nation has been happily debating for more than 230 years now and we still don’t have a king, so there’s good evidence that it does indeed work.
So remember to drink three glasses of milk a day, exercise regularly, eat plenty of fiber, brush your teeth after every meal and never turn away from a good debate.
Well, I’d like to talk some more, but some of my neighbors are shouting something to me and I have to close the window. I really don’t want to hear what they have to say.
John Pawlak is a teacher at Santa Fe Public Schools. For fun, he studies things like Vedic mathematics, archaic history and philosophy. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.