All this “return to civility” chatter since the wake of the Arizona massacre, which left six people dead and a congresswoman with brain damage, is a good thing. It’s about time we re-learned civility in our national discourse.
I realize it wasn’t hate-filled rhetoric that led to that shooting, it was a mentally deranged schizophrenic. But if that Arizona sheriff, who spoke from the heart about how the rhetoric contributed, caused the nation to tone down its hostilities toward one another, then maybe something good will have come out of it all.
On the national front, partisan politics frequently goes too far. It’s a part of our national DNA. But you’d think that we would have learned a thing or two since the great Jefferson-Adams feud of 1800. You’d think we’d know by now that anyone who demonizes their opponent with lies and innuendo is doing more harm to this country than any good.
You’d think our national leaders and pundits would be patriotic enough to place the nation’s interests above partisan politics.
Unfortunately, however, this just isn’t true with a lot of people on both the left and the right.
Small town America figured out long ago that it’s wrong to demonize your opponent just for the sake of political gain. In hometown races all across this nation, candidates attack the issues, not the person, in their attempts to get elected or hold on to power.
Personal attacks only go so far in small towns. After all, you might just bump into your opponent, or your opponent’s mother, in the grocery store. So, while Beltway politicos might be able to get away with personal attacks, in small towns it’s just too, well, personal.
Even here in Las Vegas, where politics is a full-contact sport, there’s a certain level of respect given to your opponent. And when someone turns to disrespect, innuendo and dirty tricks, it’s usually in a cowardly way — done anonymously and with no respect for our community or its people. It’s hard to take such people seriously, especially in contrast to those who publicly step forward and passionately stand up for what they believe in.
Cheap shots we need less of, but I’m a big believer in passionate leadership. I’ve heard some passion in this year’s school board elections, but for the most part it’s been respectful of other opposing viewpoints. Consolidation, for example, is a hot-button topic in Las Vegas, but when candidates addressed the issue they didn’t turn to personal attacks. Instead, they gave reasons why they support or oppose consolidation. In my opinion, that’s as it should be.
You can be passionate in your views without being hostile toward others who view things differently. It’s really not that hard to do. The trick is to recognize and appreciate different perspectives.
But it took me a while to figure that out. When I was in my 20s, I was a direct-action community organizer, and I became rather good at agitating and demonizing. As a young man, I fought against the injustices of our time (at least injustices as I saw them) and personal attacks on the opposition were the means that justified the end.
But when I became a journalist, I gained a very different perspective. A journalist is trained to look for the other side of the story, so I’ve come to realize that great minds don’t always think alike. There are people on both sides of an issue with well-founded points to make, and to verbally attack someone with an opposing point of view only belittles your own perspective.
As a nation, there’s a lot more at stake than ideologies allow. And as a community, we need to choose solutions, not sides. Otherwise, our collective failures will be, well, very personal indeed.
Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or firstname.lastname@example.org.