Begging to differ
Posted by James McPherson on June 9, 2008
As I noted a couple of days ago, one of the highlights of my childhood was listening in–and occasionally participating–as my parents argued politics with their friends. Occasionally things would become overly heated and the gathering would break up. My first coffee table was a hand-me-down with indents in the wood where a rum bottle had been pounded for emphasis during a discussion of the Vietnam War. But the friendships themselves held together because everyone knew that the people involved were good, even if the ideas sometimes weren’t.
Today one of the things I value most about my current job is my friendship with a conservative Southern Baptist who idolizes Ronald Reagan. I frequently describe Mike as “one of the funniest, best-educated, most loving, thoughtful, well-spoken people I know–who just happens to be wrong about almost everything.” He subscribes to National Review, while I subscribe to the Nation. Of course we’re also both middle-aged white guys with beards, glasses and Ph.D.’s, which makes us more like each other than either of us is like most of the other people in the world.
Mike and I typically get together for lunch after any significant political event such as a debate or primary. I do so because he knows more about media and politics than anyone else I know around here, and I love to talk about the issues. We send each other jokes about the other guy’s favored candidates and positions. When we see each other in public we’ll exchange insults of a sort that make those around us–people far more accustomed to the modern practice of avoiding the discussion of anything that might cause discomfort–reflexively cringe. For example, the last time I stepped into the bloodmobile, there was Mike already lying prone and bleeding into a bag. “So did you make them promise not to give any of your blood to save liberals?” I called the length of the bus. Laughing, he responded: “No, I asked them to give it all to liberals. I figure it might make them smarter.” See, I told you he was a funny guy.
More important than our willingness to exchange ideas, jokes and insults, however, is the fact that we send each other jokes about our own favored candidates and positions. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Life is too short to be taken seriously.” More accurately, I’d argue that life is too short to take ourselves very seriously.
Mike subscribes to National Review and watches Fox News, but he also reads the Nation and listens to NPR. As you can see from the links on the right side of this page, I also rely on news from a range of perspectives. We both believe that generally speaking more information is better than less information, and that the best response to bad speech is better speech (more on my reasons why here). We rarely take criticism of our positions personally, and when we do take it personally–for example, when I may have gone a bit over the top in some of the language in a letter to the local paper pointing out that George Bush was a war criminal–we tend to recognize that fact and avoid each other for a couple of days.
When 24-hour cable news arrived, I hoped it would add depth to our understanding of events, that with more time to fill, broadcasters would spend more time examining individual issues. Instead, of course, they spend most of their time regurgitating trivial news stories and commenting on (rather than reporting on) events of the day. Bias, fluff and sensationalism became more prevalent, not less so.
I have found the blogosphere to be similarly disappointing in many respects. While the Internet provides amazing access to information of all sorts, and greatly expands the number of voices worth reading, it also increases the overall “noise” of the discussion. And without the kind of interaction that Mike and I have, which allows both increased verbal context and the recognition that the person at the other end of the argument is essentially a good human being regardless of his/her political beliefs, it becomes far too easy to take potshots and engage in name calling.
Add to that the idea that too many of us feel obligated to have opinions on virtually any topic, regardless of how well informed we may be about that topic, it becomes easier to attack the messenger than the message. Comparing our “language environment” to what is commonly known to ecologists like my brother as “the tragedy of the commons,” Suzette Haden Elgin notes in a book titled How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable that we worry primarily about our own needs:
People have discovered that they can put food on the table by ranting and raving on the radio or television, or by bullying their colleagues and employees. They’ve learned that they can confidence and self-esteem from using language to demonstrate their power over others, and that this not only makes them feel good but seems to help them get ahead. They’ve found that sarcasm is a quick and easy way to make a child behave. They’ve found that ethnic jokes make people laugh, and it’s pleasant to be a big hit with the crowd. These are immediate and obvious rewards, the way bug-free tomatoes are; they have far more power to affect people than the alleged consequences of language behavior in some distant and hypothetical future.
As a former editorial writer and now a blogger, I sincerely hope that language has an effect, and I don’t deny that sometimes I slip into a bit of name calling myself–sometimes with good motives, to generate thought, sometime with less wholesome motives because I’m cranky. Last Christmas my wife gave me a T-shirt that reads, “Stupidity is not a crime, you’re free to go,” and I suspect she didn’t pick it up just because it was on sale and she thought I could wear it while doing yard work. Frankly the comma splice bothers me, but I happen to be wearing the shirt as I write this.
It is too easy to spout half-formed opinions, and I know that if I do so in my interactions with Mike, I’ll be verbally skewered. As a result, if I don’t have a good answer for something, I don’t offer any answer until I know more. So feel free to skewer me here, too. Having been a journalist for years, a grad student for too long, and a college professor for a decade, I honestly don’t mind the criticism (my wife has accused me of enjoying it). For the sake of enlightenment, of course, I hope you’ll attack the message more than the messenger. But I can live with either one.