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Business Casual: Holding The Line

 

Isn’t it nice that the political season is shaping up to be so informative and uplifting? Candidates talking about substantive solutions. Commentators discussing issues forthrightly instead of dispensing vitriolic half-truths like chunks of red meat to stir up their followers. Voters engaging in civil discourse and thoughtful disagreement.

Oops, sorry. I must have stepped momentarily into a parallel universe or time-traveled someplace where political debate is not a blood sport. But a voter can dream, can’t she?

Even as I was listening this summer to reports of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, part of me was waiting for and dreading the fallout – who was a liar, who was a sellout, who was just plain wrong. I didn’t have to wait long.

Was there ever a time when good people might disagree politely on an emotion-charged topic but manage to discuss their differences and vote their consciences without seeking to eviscerate the opposition? I want to believe so, because it reinforces my good Southern upbringing and the emphasis placed on being “nice.” At the same time, I can’t get past the notion that rancorous debate is better than no debate at all – as uncomfortable and unpleasant as it can be.

Yet I am convinced there is a line between spirited political exchange and mindless verbal assaults and that it must be respected. Trouble is, that blasted line keeps moving and not always in the direction of my personal comfort zone.

Can we learn lessons from rude and painful public debate? I believe we have. There was nothing genteel or measured about opposition to the Vietnam War. It was shrill and raw and relentless, but it changed the way citizens think about their government’s power to wage war, among other things. I’m not sure that would have happened over civilized sherry-fueled conversations in the drawing room. Change required genuine passion and candid conviction and taking to the streets. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

We have continued to learn. We have realized that opposition to a war should not mean disrespect for the men and women fighting that war. It took a while to figure that out. It was a difficult lesson, particularly costly for those who fought in Vietnam and came back to less than a hero’s welcome.

At the same time, it’s easy to be soothed by the sounds of voices in agreement. Rhetoric is less demanding than follow-through. Today we have the “thank you for your service” part down pat, but I’m not sure we are yet doing right by those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade.

The Civil Rights Movement didn’t reshape a country’s conscience solely by making reasonable arguments. Without the harsh and powerful words of its leadership to highlight the actions and quiet courage of many footsoldiers, it’s not hard to imagine change might have taken even longer.

Similarly, reforms brought about by the Women’s Movement didn’t come because women sat quietly with their ankles crossed and wished for a more equitable world.

But there does come a point where reason and civility have to have a place at the table. That’s when that line needs to be identified and respected.

A little blowing off of partisan steam can be healthy, but when it escalates to bile-spewing, it’s hard to defend. I take issue with a number of publications and blogs I otherwise respect for their leniency in allowing unsigned racist or homophobic ranting disguised as “reader feedback” on their websites. Just as free speech is not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, it is not spouting “hatespeak” to torpedo an opponent. There is no value in that invective – especially when there is no accountability.

I’m proud that at Georgia Trend we publish letters that are critical as well as those that are complimentary. But we require signatures. And we deliberately do not provide a place on our website for unsigned commentary. Anyone – starting with our own columnists – who expresses an opinion in our pages must be willing to stand up for that opinion.

Until political dialogue and discourse take a turn toward civility, I will endeavor to bear up under harsh words spoken with conviction in the heat of political debate, even if they make me the teeniest bit uncomfortable; but I will also be keeping my eye on that line.

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