Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Rhetoric, politics, and the freedom to remain silent

Allow me to go on record as saying that I can't wait for this presidential election to be over.

It's only the beginning of September, and already I am sick unto death of the nasty political rhetoric.  Not the stuff coming from the candidates and their sponsors; I've come to expect that, given our money-driven, whatever-it-takes-to-get-elected system.  What makes me ill, on almost a daily basis, is the ugly invective you hear and see from ordinary citizens and voters.

That sort of thing has become easier to broadcast in the past few decades.  When I was young, if you had a message (nasty or otherwise), your only free choice was to write a letter to the editor.  Otherwise, you had to purchase radio or television time, or rent a billboard.  Now, the entire internet (especially social network sites like Facebook and Twitter) have become the sounding boards for anyone with something they'd like the whole world to hear.  And in an election year, what a lot of people have to say is (1) irrational, (2) rife with overgeneralizations, and (3) just generally unpleasant.

Let me give you just the briefest sampling, from my Facebook page.  Note that the vitriol is coming from both sides of the aisle:
  • The top slogan of the Democratic Party is "Bitterly Clinging To Taxes and Abortions."
  • Republicans have consistently cut disaster relief in order to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and for big corporations.
  • Please don't vote us out!  None of us can do real jobs!
  • The only way you could vote Republican is if you lack a heart, lack a brain, or both.  So which are you?  The Scarecrow or the Tin Man?
  • You lost a debate to a conservative? Time to yell "racism" and blame Fox News.
  • The conservative agenda is to make government smaller so that the big corporations have room to move in.
  • Democrats want to stick around in America just long enough to see how it ends.
  • The Republican Party has no interest in protecting the rights of anyone who isn't an entitled, wealthy, white, heterosexual Christian man.
I usually try to stay out of political discussions -- it's almost always frustrating and almost never accomplishes anything -- so I generally don't respond when people post this stuff.  But I broke my own rule a few days ago, and I responded to one of the above (which one is irrelevant; they're all equally ridiculous) by saying, "Oh, come now.  This is a bit much.  You really think that 50% of the United States actually believes this?"  Within five minutes, there were three responses, to wit:
  • Sounds about right to me.
  • I love the sarcasm and the parody -- and the point.  This is awesome.
  • This is great.  Sharing.
To which I responded:  "I give up."

I honestly do not understand the motivation that drives this stuff.  Yes, both the Democratic and the Republican Parties have a few people who are extremists, whose views are pretty clearly in the "nutjob" category.  Both have elected officials who have broken the law, who have taken bribes, who have committed sexual indiscretions.  But the vast majority of the actual voters -- the people who are the Democratic and Republican Parties, not just the officials they elect to represent them -- are ordinary people, who want the things that all of us want.  A home, a job, security, a safe place to raise their children, food on the table, the freedoms guaranteed them by the Constitution.  Most of them are decent human beings, who would be interesting to sit down and have a beer and a bull session with.  Damn few of them on either side want to "tear down America" or "sell the US to the corporations" or "turn the United States into the Soviet Union" or any of the thousand other things that the purveyors of toxic rhetoric would like you to believe.

Of course, everyone is entitled to state his or her opinion.  That is one of those "freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution" I mentioned earlier.  However, just because you're free to do something doesn't mean that you should.  You are also free not to speak when it does more harm than good, a freedom that more of us should exercise.  The poisonous messages currently flooding social media do nothing but drive people apart, break down dialogue, and spread the message that if you don't agree with me, you must be either deluded or evil.  I fail to see what positive end any of this could possibly accomplish.

Now, don't get me wrong.  By saying, "why can't we just get along?" I'm not saying, "why can't we all agree?"  Liberals and conservatives do differ, if not in what their basic goals are, in how best to achieve those goals.  There are very real points of debate on issues that deserve time, energy, and effort to resolve.  But ugly invective is not debate, and it muddies the water rather than clearing it.  So to those people who share this stuff, and thus keep it alive online, I am respectfully asking you to knock it off.

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