If America is a melting pot of different cultures and ideas, then our national political debate could be described as a food fight.
As ugly as the American pastime of partisanship might be, it is a tradition that has evolved for a reason, and is not the sole cause of our problems.
In the weeks following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, many public figures have called for a new era of political civility, but the movement to end vitriol in politics seems to have evolved into a dangerous call for silence on political issues.
It’s not a defined movement, but rather a scattered symptom of the shock that we all felt following Jared Lee Loughner’s brutal shooting rampage Jan. 8. I myself was quick to judge Loughner’s motivation, wondering if he was a representative of a new, more violent Tea Party movement.
I joined in the finger-pointing before I realized that such blame would never undo the horrific act that occurred in front of the Tucson supermarket. Politicizing the reaction to the shooting would only dishonor the memory of those who died that day.
In the weeks since then, the press spoke of renewed civility in Washington. Instead of talking about compromises on healthcare, the environment and immigration reform, we focused on where Congressmen would sit during Obama’s State of the Union Address.
When I think of civility, I don’t visualize political enemies awkwardly sitting next to each other, attempting to avoid eye contact.
I think of compromise and shared sacrifice. We don’t have to like each other, but we have to talk to each other.
Yet many are now confusing debate with discussion to the point of absurdity. In an Op-Ed piece appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Randall, distinguished deputy editor of Playboy, worried about the proliferation of opinions in America.
“The Internet is a Petri dish of opinion inflation, breeding commentary like bacteria,” he said.
Even comedians aren’t safe from the civility police.
In a letter to the Times, one reader said that Gervais’ timing was tactless, as the Globes took place only days “after our President asked Americans to be nice to one another.”
I guess Obama’s historic speech following Gifford’s shooting was less about political understanding and more about respecting Robert Downey Jr.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik called for Americans to tone down their partisan rhetoric.
His call elicited a mixed response, with some praising his frankness and others condemning him for using a tragedy to criticize right-wing radio hosts.
But his remarks hold an element of truth. Our national political discourse has been hijacked by attention-seekers.
There’s little money in encouraging intelligent discussion of the issues; it’s very profitable to be controversial.
People can only educate themselves if they share ideas, so limiting debate simply makes the offensive people stand out more.
We can be gracious without being silent. Respect requires understanding, so instead of trying to make each other shut up, we should allow people to speak their minds.
The conversation will move past the same few boring wedge issues if we take the time to understand why we disagree, rather than focusing on what we disagree about.
Our history is filled with debates between great minds, from Jefferson vs. Adams to Lincoln vs. Douglas.
We should cherish our opinions, but also value our opponents as citizens who have an equal stake in the future of our democracy.
Dan Killam is a junior majoring in environmental studies.