The invective leveled against Sarah Palin in the United States is truly amazing. On a daily basis, she is on the receiving end of a barrage of unbridled, vicious, visceral hatred. She is derided as an untermensch too: a know-nothing, undereducated countrywoman.
Most of the people who give her such a hard time seem to really admire to Barack Obama. But they must not be listening to what he says. He says this: "There is a sense that something is different now, that something's broken... At times it seems like we're unable to listen to one another, to have at once a serious and civil debate."
At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. on February 5, the President spoke of an "erosion of civility" that sows division and distrust: "It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport where one side is either always right or always wrong, when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth."
Personally, I think Sarah Palin would make a poor choice for president, and perhaps she's not exactly a political mastermind, but there is plenty to admire in her as a human being: her family values, for example, or looking after her son with Down's Syndrome so well. The story of a simple mother who rapidly rose to amazing heights in American politics is surely as much a vindication of the American dream as that of a Harvard educated lawyer, albeit a black one, becoming president. Which is not to take away from the profound and beautiful moment when a President Obama entered the White House, or how his election renewed the world's vision of the United States: once more America became a beacon of hope for all.
In his quest for civility in politics, President Obama is trying to renew America in a different, but no less profound, way. But why is it so important to be civil toward those we disagree with?
Even the most beautiful truth, if uttered in a spirit of anger and hatred, will be poisoned by those emotions. Our own hatred can deceive us, and we can become bound up in animosity, unable to see our own truth clearly, or the truth in the other.
If we manage to see the good qualities in our opponents, we collectively arrive at the truth much more quickly: our vision of truth isn't obscured by hatred and anger and our opponent's vision of us become less obscured too. In this way, we are much more likely to learn from one another. This way lies truth, the alternative leads us to an endless cycle of anger and recrimination, which will ultimately yield a society divided.
Civility does not mean eradicating passion from our speech and our ideals. Anger is often an understandable emotion. But, as rational creatures, we can try to temper our emotions in the interests of civilized discourse. Ad hominem attacks, such as those Ms. Palin is constantly subjected to, are perhaps the most corrosive forms of incivility. And of course, President Obama is no stranger to ad hominem attacks either, from the "birthers," and many more besides.
When Obama mounted the podium in Notre Dame University in 2009, he did so surrounded by controversy centering on perhaps the most emotive of all moral issues in United States: abortion. He said this:
The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.
Rev. John Jenkins, the President of Notre Dame who had invited Obama to speak at the university, also argued for engagement with those who disagree with Catholic teaching on abortion. "Easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age," Jenkins said. "If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.''
Perhaps the good Reverend, and President Obama, are both inspired by the person who said this: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'... But I say to you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who spitefully use you, and persecute you."
Perhaps that's the best way to truth: If we can reach out to our opponents; if we can temper our hatred, anger and the perennial "us v them" mentality inherent in us all, which has poisoned debate for centuries and which has brought humanity, again and again, to war.
Perhaps this destructive spirit of animosity that lurks within each of us is what we really need to overcome, and not our external adversaries. Certainly, truth is arrived at more quickly when we are not just shouting at one another: "I hate you!" 2,500 years ago, Socrates began the tradition of using debate between opposing viewpoints to illuminate and elucidate objective truth: We must now choose between shouting and Socrates.
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