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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Politics, Civility, and Reason

Yesterday, I had a strange experience. I was having lunch with my friends in the faculty lounge at school. A substitute came in and sat down on a couch. I asked a friend of mine if he watched the vice-presidential debate, and he said he had watched the whole thing. At this point, the substitute felt compelled to say "I think Biden's performance was emblematic of the symbol of his party." (i.e. He thinks the vice-president was a donkey...also known as an ass.) Now, whatever any of us may think about the vice-president or his performance in the debate, we are talking about the Office of the Vice-President, which is something, I think, we should respect. There are already a few important lessons that a person could learn from this story so far: 1) speaking disrespectfully about others doesn't make you look good; 2) when you're an outsider somewhere (like a substitute), don't butt into conversations between people who are "natives"; 3) and as my mother taught me, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Okay, so, my friend and I made the mistake of thinking that this substitute was just trying to be "involved", and could have a cordial conversation. We both commented that we were refreshed by Biden's punchy attitude and his willingness to dig in and take a hard line in the debates. This was a mistake, because this substitute took this as an invitation to spew his political rhetoric. He began jumping from one politically charged topic to the next (including, but not limited to, the war in Iraq and partial-birth abortion) without even really giving anyone else a chance to speak. My friend did try to make some logical points, but this substitute was not interested in listening as much as he was interested in talking. By this point, I had stopped talking entirely, and my friend had told this substitute a couple times that he wanted to stop this conversation and just enjoy his lunch with his friends. This substitute pressed on and railed about how he hates Catholics who go to church on Sunday and then vote for candidates who support abortion. He also accused all teachers (including us) of being wildly liberal people who indoctrinate students with liberal ideology. (For the record, I wouldn't consider myself liberal at all, and certainly not wildly liberal; and I don't indoctrinate my students with any ideology. I encourage them to investigate the world and to develop their own ideologies.)

I should note that by this point, I was really concerned about this person's sanity. He was jumping wildly around from topic to topic, shouting, speaking in an aggressive tone, and saying some really offensive things. He was also ignoring my friend's repeated request to end the conversation. Finally, he stormed out of the room after ranting about how disappointed he us I suppose.

Okay, so that story is a little long, but it illustrates a couple of points worth emphasizing:

  1. You can say the most reasonable, logical thing, but if you are shouting and speaking in an aggressive tone, you sound like a lunatic and nobody is going to believe what you're saying.
  2. Making vast generalizations about people you don't know doesn't help you make your point, it just makes you look un-informed.
  3. Saying offensive things doesn't win you good-will; it just offends people.
  4. I recently heard Archbishop Schnurr, in Cincinnati, say that when discussing politics in public everyone should focus on being courageous, civil, and compassionate. I think that's great advice, which would have served this substitute well.

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