Keeping It Civil 


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In a recent Sunday morning I listened to a civil debate between surrogates for Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont.

Then I read this quote in the Sunday paper from Buck O'Neil, a self-described "proud ... Negro League ballplayer," on the occasion of the induction this week of 17 Negro Leaguers and Negro League executives into the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

"And I tell you what: They always said to me, 'Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks.' I said, 'No, man, I never learned to hate.' … I can't hate a human being, because my God never made anything so ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you want to, but God didn't make you that way."

The convergence of the two got me thinking again about one of the points that former Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry made in her speech at the recent Virginia Women in Politics Conference (you can listen to or download the podcast of the speech at www.virginia.edu/uvapodcast).

After speaking thoughtfully about the need to use long-term thinking in solving current issues and avoiding lost opportunities, Terry urged careful consideration of the language of politics.

Terry expressed concern about language that makes politics a war or battle rather than a conversation or discussion. She talked about the need to change the nature of political discourse. She urged women not to participate in the use of "war" and "battle" language in politics. She reminded the audience that the language used can become a predictor of behavior.

The language of politics is a theme I've visited before. In spring 2000, I asked noted linguist Deborah Tannen, who had just published her book, "The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words," to address the language of conflict in politics at the annual Southern Women in Politics Conference held that year in Northern Virginia.

Tannen had spoken and written about this before. Her message: "There's something deeper that I'm trying to talk about — the power of words to frame how you think about things, how you feel about things, how you perceive the world. The tendency in our culture to use war metaphors so pervasively and to frame everything as a metaphorical battle, influences how we approach each other in our everyday lives. We end up thinking problems are insoluble, because we have allowed the polarized extremes to frame the debate."

In March 2005 I wrote an essay about "hate," particularly by Kerry supporters, in the 2004 presidential campaign. I said I couldn't understand why my politically passionate friends kept talking about how they "hated" George Bush.

Hate, I argued, is a term that should be reserved for persons whose actions are so antithetical to common decency and civility, such an affront to our common humanity, that they should provoke a visceral, unreasoned antipathy among all people of good heart and right reason.

I worry about what we expect our children to learn from us when we are so ready to describe objects of mere political disagreements as people we "hate."

I think that we should work harder to heed the words of President George Washington and ask ourselves before we speak if our words will live up to his expectation of the "demeanor" of "good citizens":

"Happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demeanor themselves as good citizens."

No one is worthy of hate when that assessment is made only because they bring to that mix a different point of view, a different sexual orientation, a different tradition of faith or a different political position.

This is an important lesson to learn for those of us participating in the debates of this campaign season about candidates and issues, including the Marshall/Newman "marriage amendment," which would amend Virginia's bill of rights with dramatic and largely unknown consequences for all unmarried Virginians.

We do ourselves and our causes no good if we stoop to name-calling and demonizing our opponents. We teach our children the wrong lessons if we teach them through the language we use that it is OK to hate someone for their beliefs or their being or that politics is a "battle" or "boxing match" properly "fought" from opposite "extremes" or opposing "corners."

Anyone who doubts the power of words to incite behavior need look no further than the recent incident of hate violence against a gay couple living peaceably in Loudoun County. Can anyone doubt that words of hate fueled the attack there?

I haven't quite gotten out of the habit of participating in the use of "fighting" references in my political lexicon, as Terry recommended. But I'm working on it. Bad habits are hard to break, and good habits are hard to keep.

What I do know is this: Hearts and minds are not changed by force of battle. They are led to change by love and the gentle persuasion of conversation and thoughtful consideration. S

Claire Guthrie GastaAñaga was the first woman to serve as chief deputy attorney general of Virginia. She runs the statewide campaign against the "marriage amendment."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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