Opinion: Why Can't We Just Disagree?

Friday, August 24, 2012 - 04:14 PM

What if we each took the responsibility, individually, to take hypocrisy and contempt out of our discussions about the presidential and Congressional campaigns this year? How much would that change the conversation?

As the campaign goes on and the national conventions get closer, I’m wondering why so many intelligent people seem incapable of debating the issues without criticizing the candidates on personal grounds, or mocking the values of their political opponents.

I’m tired, for example, of the personal attacks on Mitt Romney related to his wealth or religion. When I pointed out to a Democrat friend recently that John F. Kennedy was criticized on precisely the same grounds in 1960, I was told “this is different.” But my friend could not explain how it’s different.

I keep hearing the argument that Romney is unfit for the presidency because, with an estimated net worth of $250 million, he is “out of touch” with common people, whose problems he could not possibly begin to understand. The next time a friend or acquaintance makes that argument, I plan to ask whether he or she opposed the candidacy of John Kerry (net worth $232 million according to CNN/Money) on the same grounds.

During the Olympics, I heard more than once that Ann Romney's ownership of a horse in the dressage event was further evidence that the Republican candidate’s family is far removed from the reality of most Americans. As opposed, I assume, to the family of Kerry, whose wife, Theresa Heinz, has a net worth of her own that was estimated at $1 billion by Forbes magazine.

I have no objection to Kerry’s wealth, or to Al Gore’s for that matter (net worth $100 million according to CNBC); I voted for both men. But I do object to the fact that many, many people who have voted for one Democrat millionaire after another now argue that Romney’s wealth is a disqualification.

I’ve also heard Mormonism repeatedly described as a cult by liberals, while conservatives argue that Mormons (members, that is, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) are somehow not Christian. Maybe Mormons are a cult, but are they any crazier than those Catholics who believe in the virgin birth of Jesus?

The hypocrisy that bothers me extends beyond the candidates and the parties, to encompass entire classes of people. I am losing patience, for example, with so-called progressives who mock voters who don’t support gay marriage or abortion rights. It hardly seems tolerant for people who consider themselves open-minded to dismiss as ignorant, or bigoted, anybody whose sense of morality does not match their own. Many of my acquaintances are too quick to assume that people who don’t support liberal social values are stupid, evil, or both. And those conservatives who label everybody who disagrees with them as unpatriotic, or socialist, are equally offensive.

This country would certainly be a boring and less vibrant place if we all agreed. But it has apparently become impossible for us to disagree without engaging in hypocritical, personal denunciations of anybody whose point of view differs from our own. We ought to be able to debate the real issues without resorting to such tactics. 


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Comments [3]

Leo in NYC from NYC

Yeah not so much. Cuz here's the thing. Aside from the political pipe dream premise of this article ("I'm shocked — shocked — to encounter hypocrisy in politics") I believe this is a case of false equivalency. Like such spurious notions as "reverse racism," there is critical context lacking in the presentation here. Namely, that Mitt Romney policies are intimately aligned with his interests and personal relationships as a silver-spooned plutocrat. Romney is running on a nakedly self-interested (or at least nakedly pro-owning-class) agenda to further tilt the playing field toward those of his class background and parochial interests, through massive tax-cuts to the rich, the slashing of regulations on big business and the gutting of many programs for the poor and working class.

Whatever you may think of Al Gore or John Kerry's personal fortunes, their political agendas were not designed primarily to favor other wealth men like them.

And therein lies the difference. With regard to Romney's religion, I don't know which liberals exactly are calling Mormonism a cult. The fact that you've heard some unidentified "liberals" do so may be unfortunate. But keep in mind that it is the GOP that has brought religion — and in particular activist, extreme-right-wing culture-war religion — into the political arena for scrutiny. I think that most liberals would be perfectly happy with a Mormon or a Jew or an atheist or a Hindu in the White House as long as their religion were largely a personal issue and not a litmus test for office. So again, sorry if our frustration occasionally spills over. But we didn't make this an issue. And I'd love to see how the oh-so-enlightened GOP would treat an atheist running for President. Methinks "cult" would be the least offensive four-letter word applied in such a situation.

And lastly, the equivalency of bigotries is again a deeply disingenuous concept. As if all arguments simply reduce to equal, he-said, she-said debates in which everyone ought to remain perfectly civil and respectful. "While I believe all children should be killed and eaten, my opponent believes they should be given a public education. Can't we agree to disagree civilly?" No. Clearly not. In 2012, many if not most Americans find the notion that GLBTQ-folk should be treated as second class citizens repugnant and beyond the terms of civil discourse. We regard this idea about as respectable as bringing back Jim Crow laws or taking away the vote from women.

And by the way, while I disagree utterly with anti-abortion activists, I completely understand their passion for the issue, and more power to them. Politics isn't always supposed to be civil. Peaceful, lawful, constitutional? Yes. Polite? Absolutely not, and it never was. (See: Civil War.)

I'm not afraid of a little shouting when the stakes are this high. I'd be much more afraid of cowed silence. And hypocrisy? Sure it bugs me, but only when Republicans do it.

Aug. 29 2012 06:41 PM
Angèle Morgan from Canada

So, now the onus is on those preaching tolerance to be "tolerant" of bigotry? Ridiculous.
I have some rather conservative relatives, and I am well aware that they are not malicious people, but the basis for denying human rights to gay people is ONLY ignorance and bigotry. Belief in the immorality of abortion does not justify legislating away the rights of women, nor does it negate the REAL LIFE negative consequences of doing so.
I'm quite happy to have a civil debate on any issue and I firmly believe that the exchange of ideas is itself a valuable thing -- it fosters understanding. The point is not to make everyone think the way I do.
But the world is not made only of human opinions. The world is made of facts. When someone is advocating for something that makes no sense, is predicated upon false assumptions, or is telling outright lies, calling them out on it IS NOT MALICIOUS.
We can disagree about which colour is prettiest.
We cannot disagree about whether 2+2=4.

p.s. Romney's wealth is relevant because his party has made his "business savvy" a selling point. It's not just his wealth, but the actions he has taken to accumulate it. And a candidate's actions throughout his life and in his work are indeed relevant. He's applying for a job (President of the USA), the potential employers (the public) aren't allowed to ask questions about his work experience?

Aug. 27 2012 02:38 PM

What is described here is a common political epiphany yet also a lonely journey of conscience across the political spectrum from left to right. The epiphany doesn't so much come with the honest questioning of progressive politics and its tactics but it is the harsh and unreasonable backlash one gets for simply raising difficult questions from those progressives who consider themselves tolerant and open minded that causes this right leaning transformation.

It may be a simple matter of nurture over nature.
One theory is that a liberal popular culture and media permit and even encourage "hypocrisy and contempt" from the left while conservatives are permitted no such licence without a heavy social cost. This encourages conservatives to do their homework and watch their mouths because a mistake or misstep by them will not be socially forgiven whereas those on the left tend to be given a pass and can be as misguided and caustic as they want to be toward the right. If the popular culture and media were stridently conservative perhaps the opposite would be true.

The Obama era is probably causing many such political epiphanies but it is nothing new. The most prominent example was the former FDR supporting liberal turned conservative Ronald Reagan who said "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. It left me".

Aug. 25 2012 10:49 AM

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