Thursday, February 02, 2006

Civility schmivility

My father-in-law died a couple of years ago. I still miss him, especially when I want to talk politics. We couldn’t have been more different. He was loud, opinionated and conservative. Well, ok so we were both opinionated.

Anyway, we used to get into serious pissing matches. I’d come over to the house and he’d be in the basement watching tv. Invariably he’d turn to me as I sat sown and say, “Did you hear what your President wants to do…” And no matter how many times I protested that I didn’t vote for Clinton (I was SWP all the way back then), he’d insist that he was my president and then launch into some tirade about liberals destroying the world.

At this point you might be thinking, “And you MISS this?!?” And you’re right too. But here’s the thing. No matter how much we went at it, at the end of the day we were friends—or at least as close friends as a father-in-law and a son-in-law could be.

He was a dirty arguer and he used all the tricks: straw men, personal attacks, statistics out of context, false dilemmas, etc. But in classic pissing match fashion it was never about winning me over to his side. In fact, I think he would have been disappointed if he did. Instead, it was another thing to talk about, like sports. And the conflict was simply a way to keep it interesting.
When I first met him I was pretty intimidated. I had never experienced this type of interaction. It was passionate on the one hand, but with a distance on the other. Nothing was personal. For me growing up, politics and religion were off—limits. People might disagree and disagreement was upsetting.

I’m not sure where this came from. Maybe I’m succumbing to a ‘Golden Age’ fallacy, but when I talk to my own Dad now, he tells me about growing up in a family that always argued politics. And he talks about how he had friends with lots of different political points of view and they also argued. It seems somewhere between his generation (the Korean war guys, stuck between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers) and now things changed. I like to blame the Baby Boomers for making politics personal. But I like to blame them for everything. For whatever reason, these days we seem balkanized in terms of politics. I’m sure I have very few conservative friends, if any.

I heard that in his State of the Union speech, Bush called for a return to civility in political discourse. I think he’s off the mark. Civility has never been a part of politics. What we need is a return levity. We need to stop defining ourselves by our politics. Because, when being a conservative or liberal is an integral part of who you are, then any questioning of that position can only be taken as a personal attack. Where’s the fun in that?

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