A few weeks ago I wrote a column about political corruption. My essay began by citing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, then mentioned by name Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and Republican Congressman Michael Grimm. I also noted the pervasive historic corruption among Chicago alderman, most of whom have been Democrats.
A reader who calls himself “Common Cents” responded online as follows: “Get your head out of the sand, or wherever it is. Both parties buy votes. I agree with you when you say it is wrong. We must make lobbying illegal if we want to start cleaning things up. I was in Chicago when the Democrats gave away free cell phones and all sorts of other things to the minorities to buy their votes to get Obama elected. That should also be illegal. I wonder if it is possible for you to write something from a fair and balanced point of view...I doubt it.”
I am used to getting misreadings of my columns which put forward a liberal viewpoint, but I was surprised that Common Cents was unable to see “balance” in a column which mostly targeted Democrats. I wasn’t surprised at the hostility, but I don’t believe we should accept rudeness and ad hominem remarks in place of reasoned argument. So I responded: “I don’t know who you are, but you sure are unpleasant. What could be more balanced than a column about how both parties are guilty of corruption. Can you read?”
That provoked Common Cents: “By the way, resorting to name calling is not professional. My debate teacher said it was an admission of defeat. Let’s stick to the issues.”
I repeat this exchange partly because I think that rudeness ought to be called out. I also find Common Cents’ projection amusing: he has made hostile comments to me before, here he made a few more, but then he gets huffy when I called him “unpleasant”.
Common Cents resembles many online political commentators: he doesn’t carefully read what he comments on, he proposes simplistic solutions to complex problems, and he ridicules anyone with different political leanings. But my response to him also resembles too many political columnists: after noting his unpleasantness, I wrote sarcastically, “Can you read?” By responding to rudeness with rudeness, I cut off the possibility of actually opening a dialogue with someone who is interested enough in what I write to read and respond. I don’t know if Common Cents is capable of a reasonable political conversation, but my own actions made that much less likely.
Everyone complains about the uncivil state of our national political conversation, the tendency to assume that political opponents are stupid at best and, more likely, evil. And everyone waits for the other guy to shape up.
So my New Year’s resolution is to break that cycle myself by inviting my critics to civil dialogue. I do that here in general, but I will also do it in the more difficult situations when someone calls me a name, or says I am stupid or crazy. I will try my best not to respond in kind, but to find the common ground of our shared interests, to remain polite and respectful. As Common Cents suggests, I will try to stick to the issues and see if I can coax similar behavior from my critics.
The open antagonism which characterizes so many of our political conversations is not characteristic of the rest of our lives. Without knowing another person’s politics, we say hello on the street, root for the same teams, and offer help when needed. And we love the same country. If we can short-circuit our tendency to assume the worst when we find out that someone lives on the other side of an invisible political fence, we will not only have more successful politics, we will be better human beings.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 6, 2015