It's great we can express our political opinions, but why must we do so with such ferocity? 

The Dark Side of Political Disagreements

Amid all the novelties of this month's election, maybe the most surprising, and for some discomfiting, has been the increased stridency of our political arguments. I don't mean the stridency among politicians themselves, or among lobbyists, or those few private citizens known as "activists," whose excess of money and time compels them to take an interest in government affairs. Contentious debate among these groups has always existed and is the reason many citizens claim to be turned off by American politics. What I mean is the fractiousness that has recently come to characterize debate among ordinary people in (mostly) ordinary settings — at breakfast tables, in grocery lines, across backyard fences, and, in some counties of Florida, on the steps of government buildings. That such debate is occurring at all among our citizens may strike some as an improvement. America's public interest in politics has been long dormant, and it is encouraging to those who see the current enthusiasm — however divisive it may be — as a sign of its rebirth. However, plenty of others are disconcerted by the escalating fierceness of our political brawls, especially when they occur close to home. Just recently, a friend gave me an example of this tension in our own locale. My friend's 7-year-old son, having just studied in his third-grade class (and impressively memorized) all of our country's past presidents and current candidates, decided that for Halloween he wanted to dress up as Al Gore. (Since he had played the part in a school presentation, he already owned the mask.) Costumed thus — and surpassing his model in both innocence and excitement — the boy hit the candy trail. He neither expected nor understood the rebuffs that he received that night from some of his very own neighbors — why they refused him candy, or, in one case, ordered him off their property — but, to be sure, he and his mother were awakened to the kind of truculent zeal that this election has stirred. Hearing my friend tell this story reminded me of an incident from my own childhood, which overlapped with the later, though nonetheless icy years of the Cold War. Oblivious to this circumstance of international relations, I had saved my allowance to buy a toy fighter plane, which happened to have on its tail a red star. I suppose the purchase had been overseen by my mother, because when my father found me playing with the toy one day, he asked me if I would sell it to him. He was offering twice what I'd paid for it, so I happily agreed; yet no sooner had I proudly pocketed the profits than I was suddenly in tears at the sight my dad crushing the toy under his black dress shoe. Aside from people's sometimes-cruel insensitivity to the fragile feelings and impressionable memories of children, both these stories reveal the irrationalities that can accompany political fervor. One, clearly illustrated by both examples, is the tendency to confuse a symbol with its referent. My friend's child was not running for president any more than my toy plane was a real threat to democracy or national security. (Most opposition to flag-burning founders on the same fallacy.) Another is the failure to consider context. My father did not stop to ask whether, in the imaginary dogfights I was staging, the fighter with the star won or lost, just as my friend's neighbors ignored the possibility that her child's impersonation of Gore was a parody (what if they had they heard him say he invented the Internet?) — not to mention the larger context: Halloween. It's disturbingly ironic that these same people probably greeted dozens of blood-spattered murderers that night with nothing but mock fear and a handful of chocolate. Yet it's troubling, too, that many of us seem to prefer silence to any sort of political argument, and from this reaction it's obvious that our indifference to politics is at least partly rooted in our pacifism. We've been taught that to quietly tolerate others' opinions is a virtue — is, indeed, the ne plus ultra of human progress and enlightenment — and that conflict between men implies a regression to some lower order of civilization, perhaps even evolution. Thus, we reflexively avoid argument about politics and many other important matters, and eventually, in order to talk to others without disagreeing, we cease to adopt any serious opinions at all. Wonderfully, of course, this instinct smooths the way for peace; yet, silently, it also concedes power to the ones who have a special lust for it — and anyone else who has enough money to influence them. Disagreement, especially over what principles our society should follow, can be as acrid as that question is important, but perhaps it is appropriate in this election (and holiday) season to be grateful — stridently so — for our right to express it. Charles Brandon Repp teaches at Fork Union Military Academy. He grew up in Richmond. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly. © Charles Brandon Repp 2000

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