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The lost art of speaking kindly

Somebody called me a stupid idiot today. And the person who did so has never even met me. What earned me such scorn was that I evidently expressed an opinion he didn’t like during a discussion a group of us were having online. I didn’t realize I had offended him until his e-mail arrived, letting me know that, in his opinion, I am arrogant, egotistical and, of course, a stupid idiot.

I found his reaction puzzling, but not entirely surprising. It seems that more and more these days, when people disagree, they immediately resort to name-calling. I might expect this sort of behavior from the neighborhood children, but when I see it in adults, I find it especially disappointing, since we are supposed to know better.

When I was growing up, my mother (of blessed memory) would remind me that once a hateful word has been spoken, it’s too late to call it back – the damage has been done. But it seems harsh words are all too common these days, spoken far too often and far too quickly, with no thought for what the consequences might be.

And believe me, there are consequences. No, I am not going to find out where the guy who insulted me lives, and I have no desire to get back at him. But I may be more cautious the next time I offer an opinion, even on a subject that is not especially controversial. You just never know what is going to set somebody off.

I spend a lot of time these days wondering where good manners went. I don’t expect people to agree with everything I say, and I don’t mind a good debate. But I do mind when people think it’s OK to verbally attack me just because they don’t share my point of view. For example, some of my political beliefs would be classified as liberal. Somehow, over the past several decades, the word “liberal” has moved far from its dictionary definition (someone who believes in progress, someone who is tolerant) to become synonymous with someone who hates America, or someone who hates the Bible.

I don’t understand why talk-show hosts and columnists for many conservative websites insist on using the word this way. I refuse to accept that having some liberal views is shameful. In fact, the majority of liberals that I know neither hate America nor hate the Bible. And yet, turn on any conservative talk show, and it’s seldom a reasoned discussion about political differences – usually, it’s an endless stream of accusations and insults that depict liberals as unpatriotic, immoral people who have harmed our great country.

I find these sorts of blanket generalities painful as well as dishonest. Many of us have veterans in our families. Many of us support our troops, volunteer in our community, try to live an ethical life, and try to be good neighbors. But you’d never know that if you listen to certain conservative talk shows or read certain conservative columnists – far too often, the word “liberal” is used with contempt and disgust. And although I don’t think it’s fair, it happens over and over again.

Now, some of you may think I’m being one sided – after all, on some “progressive” talk shows and on certain liberal websites, there is name-calling directed at conservatives, who are depicted as intolerant, fanatical, judgmental religious zealots. However, as my mother also taught me, two wrongs don’t make a right. It seems to me that on both sides, we have become a contentious, name-calling culture. We seldom meet to exchange ideas, we seldom seek common ground. We verbally eviscerate our opponent and go away feeling we did the right thing.

But we didn’t. So, here’s the truth about this particular liberal. I don’t hate the Bible. I read it every day and I used to teach Sunday school. I agree with Michael Moore sometimes, but I agree with Joseph Farah sometimes, too. All I ask is before you make accusations about “liberals,” get to know some of us as people and let’s see if we can create some conversation. One of the most wonderful things about the Internet for me has been the chance to discuss issues with conservatives, and even though at times we don’t agree, I say we are never going to solve the problems in this country by continuing to demonize and insult each other.

I want to believe we can bring back civility to our discourse. I hear and read far too many angry and accusatory screeds, and though the outrage may be very real, not much is accomplished by all the rhetorical excess. I think the time has come for talk radio and websites on both sides of the political divide to declare a verbal truce. Let’s try to disagree kindly. Maybe that sounds idealistic, but I have a very good reason for suggesting it: Our kids are watching us. Every time they hear us express our disdain for opposing points of view, every time we are unwilling to acknowledge the humanity in those we disagree with, what kind of an example are we setting?

In Proverbs 34:14, we are told to “seek peace and pursue it.” That’s an interesting verse – we are not just asked to seek peace and be satisfied that at least we made the effort. Rather, if we don’t find peace right away, we are supposed to keep on trying. That’s why I wrote this essay instead of lashing out at the person who called me names. You see, I want to believe we really can have dialogue again. I want to believe that liberals and conservatives, people of faith and skeptics, right-wingers and left-wingers and those in the middle, can talk to each other respectfully. It’s what God wants us to do, and I think the world would be a better place if we did it.

But if you disagree, please don’t e-mail me and say I’m a stupid idiot.

Donna L. Halper teaches journalism and media ethics at Emerson College in Boston, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.