The rhetoric of respect

Amidst the nasty rhetoric flying from both sides of the political aisle this turbulent political season, it is nice to see that, while they are far from perfect, both of this year’s candidates are, in my opinion, fundamentally decent men. I’m sure that not everyone will agree with me, but I really think McCain was sincere in his defense of Obama’s character at a recent campaign rally. While they are certainly far from perfect and have participated in negative campaigning, I do believe that, at heart, both are reasonably good people. Similarly, on a late August episode of the Colbert Report, Mike Huckabee seemed genuine in his excitement that an African-American had become a serious candidate for president. While I disagree sharply with many of his political views, having watched Huckabee for the past year, I am convinced, again, that he is a good person.

All of this is in sharp contrast to Bush and the Clintons (among others). The former strikes me as basically an obstinate jerk, while the latter have proven to be nothing but ruthless and whiny. Unfortunately we’ve had sixteen years of nothing but increasing viciousness marked by the belief that anyone who does not agree with us is not just wrong, but fundamentally a bad person worthy of derision; someone to be mocked. Whatever happened to simple decency? I’m appalled at the nastiness people regularly display on blogs, bumper stickers, and elsewhere, relishing in their hatred – people who advocate, for example, throwing their political opposites down stairs and laughing.

We all fall prey to meanness from time to time, particularly when we have a very strong opinion on something. But we need to learn to pull back a bit, to not buy the hype, and to remember we’re dealing with other human beings. Are there truly evil people in the world worthy of our anger? Absolutely. While I didn’t think going into Iraq five and a half years ago was a smart idea (I thought we should have stayed focused on Afghanistan), if I had been the soldier who had found Saddam Hussein in the foxhole, I would have had the strong urge to torture and kill that evil, sick bastard. And there certainly are a few tremendously hateful, mean people living in this country. But if we paused for a moment, took a step back, and tried to see things objectively, we’d see that most people have reasonably good intentions.

Ironically, in attempting to make this very point to a former student of mine, I fell prey to this very problem. While I suppose I wasn’t mean, per se, I was so upset about the election that I came off as condescending. Part of the problem, I think, stems from our fear of moral relativism – the idea that what is right to one person may be be wrong to another. Let me make this clear: just because I think we need to be more respectful of other opinions does not mean I think there is no such thing as absolute truth – there is. Like I said, Saddam was a bad dude and deserved to die. But that doesn’t mean everyone who doesn’t think just like us is worthy of such hatred.

The fundamental messages of traditional liberalism and conservativism are not bad, just different. They may be implemented in fundamentally bad ways (e.g. communism and fascism). But not every liberal is a communist and not every conservative is a fascist. Unfortunately in our hate-filled rhetoric we often make it seem that way.

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