We need to talk

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Sometimes I want to stick my fingers in my ears and yell “SHUT UP!” over and over at the top of my lungs until the madness stops.

One cannot turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or go online without getting a daily dose of the name-calling, character assassination and overall nastiness that has characterized our recently-ended demolition derby of an election campaign and its aftermath:

Herr Trump is a sociopathic demagogue, and the RepubliKKKans who support this Manbaby and Groper in Chief are a racist, misogynistic basket of deplorables. … Crooked Hillary was a nasty woman who lied every time she opened her mouth, and the Libtards who supported her are entitled whiners, sore losers, crybabies and snowflakes who only want free stuff.

One could practically see members of the news media salivating as they proclaimed the 2016 presidential election to be the ugliest mudfest in history, and the venom shows no signs of abating now that our new president has begun his term. But our current political climate did not come from nowhere. For years now, we’ve been subjected to the endless barrage of accusations, counter-accusations and demonizing that characterize the Culture Wars:

You know who’s causing all the problems in this country don’t you? It’s those feminazis intent on killing babies and destroying traditional marriage. … It’s those right-wing bigots who push hatred as a family value. … It’s those unions bankrupting businesses and the government with their outrageous demands. … It’s those greedy capitalists who stuff their pockets while robbing honest working people of their retirement funds. … It’s those lazy welfare bums with their infuriating sense of entitlement. … It’s those wealthy elites who have too much already and want more, more, more. … It’s those incompetent teachers who staff our lousy public schools. … It’s those immigrants stealing our jobs. … It’s those SUV drivers contributing to global warming. … It’s those obese gluttons who gorge on too much fat-and-sugar-laden junk food and drive up health care costs … It’s those people who own guns, those people who want to take away our guns. … It’s those fundamentalist Christians, those radical Muslims, those godless atheists, those New-Age Buddhist-Hindu-Native American-Neo Pagan navel gazers … It’s those teenagers who watch too much TV, play too many video games, listen to rap music, do drugs, drop out of school, get pregnant and join gangs. … Of course, none of this would be happening if it weren’t for those working mothers and helicopter parents who fail to teach their hopelessly coddled offspring personal responsibility!!!

Whew! Have we left anyone out?

This seething anger has seeped into the public square and manifests itself as an epidemic of rudeness. Even before the 2016 election, we’d come to regard name-calling and mudslinging as normal for political campaigns. On the cable news networks, political pundits and other guests routinely talk over each other and shout each other down while debating the latest hot-button issues. “Flaming” and “trolling” have become popular sports in the anonymous comments sections that follow news articles and blog entries.

As I’ve paid closer attention to the steady drumbeat of vitriol that makes up the background noise of our daily lives, I find myself thinking, “No wonder we’ve become a nation of people with clenched teeth and balled up fists.”

Indeed, it seems that people I encounter in my everyday life have become more surly and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. A car with a middle-aged driver sports a bumper sticker that tells us what we can eat if we don’t like the owner’s driving. We have Road Rage (shouting, cursing and making obscene gestures to other drivers), Airport Rage (yelling at ticket agents and flight attendants), Sidewalk Rage (acting violently because people in front of us are walking too slowly), Parking Lot Rage (engaging in an angry standoff with another driver over a parking space) and Starbucks Rage (working oneself into a ballistic frenzy over the color and design of a coffee cup).

We have Climate Wars — the folks who believe climate change is caused by human behavior vs. those who believe the former are perpetrating an elaborate hoax. We have Class Wars — the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. We have Worship Wars — should a church’s music and worship style be traditional or contemporary? We have Mommy Wars in which a mother’s decisions on everything from whether to work outside the home to whether to breast-feed or bottle-feed is scrutinized and judged by other mothers. We have Turf Wars in our social services system that keep helping professionals from working together for the common benefit of people who seek help for problems ranging from drug addiction and homelessness to domestic violence and mental health issues. We even have Autism Wars — a genuinely sad state of affairs in which adults with autism and parents of younger children or more severely affected adults are locked in an unyielding struggle over how autism should be defined and how services and research dollars should be allocated.

It would be bad enough if the tide of anger and disrespect served only to put people in a surly, antisocial mood. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t end there. Our finger-pointing epidemic leads to everything from Congressional gridlock to violence against individuals who belong to the maligned groups. Two friends on opposite ends of the political spectrum have talked seriously about what they fear is an impending civil war. And perhaps worst of all, our children are watching us.

On a personal level, the constant conflict has left me exhausted, and apparently I am not alone. In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 52 percent of U.S. adults said the 2016 presidential election was a “very significant” or “somewhat significant” source of stress. Republicans and Democrats were statistically equally likely to say this was true for them. The APA pointed out that arguments and hostile or inflammatory comments on social media heightened the sense of stress felt by people who took the survey.

In the meantime, our real problems go unaddressed. Raging war in the Middle East is creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. Thousands of children worldwide die each day of starvation and totally preventable diseases, and nearly a third of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. Nearly every week brings news of another mass shooting. Environmental damage threatens our planet and all of our futures.

Some well-meaning people suggest we respond to the divisive slander the same way our parents taught us to treat malicious gossip: Don’t dignify it with comment. However, I no longer think we can afford to make political issues a taboo topic in polite conversation. The stakes are too high on too many of these issues, ranging from our ability to get health care, to the quality of our children’s education, to the impact of climate change on our grandchildren’s futures. “The personal is political” didn’t get to be a cliche for no reason. And because the vitriol on all sides is so widespread and so relentless and so damaging, we must look for ways to turn down the heat.

That is why I’m starting this blog. I would like to invite responses from all sides — liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, independents, centrists, people who don’t like labels. What would happen if we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the character assassination, the trolling and the flaming, and simply have a rational discussion about the real issues?

Questions for readers: How has all the divisiveness impacted you personally, your family and friends, our society? What problems do you see going unaddressed while we rip each other apart? What do you think is behind all the divisiveness and how do we turn down the heat? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below.

Time for a look in the mirror?

I know some will accuse me of false equivalence, but I’m going to say this anyway: People of all political and ideological persuasions have been guilty of contributing to the divisiveness tearing apart our social fabric.

During the 2016 election, I noticed most candidates for public office spent more time telling us why we should not vote for their opponents than they did telling us what they planned to do themselves if elected. This was true whether the candidate was a liberal, socialist, progressive, moderate, centrist, conservative or libertarian.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on hypocrisy. Republicans who spent eight years obstructing and filibustering former President Barack Obama at every turn now lecture Democrats to “give Trump a chance.” Meanwhile, the same Democrats who decried obstructionism now focus on how to give the Republicans a dose of their own medicine. Democrats pounced on candidate Donald Trump’s “woman problem” while conveniently forgetting or just plain denying that former President Bill Clinton was accused of similar misdeeds. Trump supporters complained that Obama issued too many executive orders, but now cheer when Trump does likewise.

Liberals who wish to vent about the election results – or find memes with which to shoot down conservatives – can join Facebook groups such as Americans Against the Republican Party, The Angry Liberal, Amending the Constitution so Corporations Can’t Buy Elections, or Teanderthal Party, which declares “Trump’s a jackass” and pledges, “I will defend my country from all enemies, both foreign and Republican.” Conservatives mad at liberals for being mad about the election can join Laughing at Stupid Things Liberals Say, Liberal Logic 101, or Occupy Dimwits, which proclaims, “Dimwits support the Occupy movement, Obama, Hillary, socialism, Marxism and communism.”

Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of promoting fake news, overt propaganda and “news” of questionable accuracy: Daily Headlines, American News, IHaveTheTruth.com and Conservative Tribune on the Right; Occupy Democrats, Bipartisan Report, Real Time Politics and Freakout Nation on the Left. People on both sides can live entirely in their own bubble, if desired. Left-leaning folks have MSNBC, DailyKos, The Nation, Jezebel, AlterNet, Slate and Mother Jones. Those on the Right have FOX News, American Spectator, CNS News, The Federalist, The National Review and the Drudge Report. While none of these latter media qualify as “fake news,” it would be fair to say they are decidedly biased.

The comments sections that follow online news articles and blogs overflow with trash-talk of both political stripes: I’m going to say this real slowly so you un-ed-i-cated rednecks can understand it. … Keep it up and maybe you can turn being a flag-hating pansy into an Olympic sport. … I can see why you vote Dumbocrat – it’s easier than working. … Is that true or did you hear it on FAUX News? … I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say, it’s so stupid.

Finger-pointing and blaming others has proven to be an equal-opportunity pastime. Ask conservatives who or what is responsible for the problems in our society, and they’ll blame labor unions, illegal immigrants who suck our social system dry when they’re not stealing jobs from hard-working Americans, Muslims out to bring sharia law to our shores, and mothers who work outside the home while others raise their children. Ask liberals the same question, and they’ll point to corporations that bust unions, xenophobes who deny entry to this country for refugees with well-founded fears of death or persecution in their own countries, Christian extremists who would impose their own version of sharia law on America, and men who want to keep women in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.

People on both sides seem to subscribe to the notion that if we can’t beat our opponents in an argument, we can always fall back on name-calling. Conservatives talk of Obozo, $hillary, elitist granola-munching Libtards, Welfare Queens, tree-hugging environmental wackos, woefully deluded do-gooders and snowflakes. Liberals talk of the Bloviater in Chief, Rethuglicans, racist-sexist-homophobic bigots, right-wing fanatics, extremist ideologues, the lunatic fringe, tea-baggers and alt-right fascists. Both sides fling words like idiot, moron, nut job and Nazi with abandon.  

Liberals and conservatives compete for the most in-your-face bumper stickers, t-shirts, ball caps and coffee cups. At the online Breitbart Store, conservatives can order their very own Border Wall t-shirt, Protected by 2nd Amendment doormat, RINO Hunter jumbo coffee cup or Safe Spaces Are for Snowflakes bumper sticker. Not to be outdone, the online Northern Sun store offers liberals a White House Alternative Facts t-shirt, He’s Not My President button, Putin-Trump Make Russia Great Again bumper sticker, or a refrigerator magnet which announces, “Mommy when I grow up I want to help smash the white racist, homophobic, patriarchal, bullshit paradigm too.”

Demonizing of opponents knows no ideological boundaries. People who favor gun rights accuse gun control advocates of wanting to render law-abiding citizens defenseless in the face of rampant crime. Gun control advocates portray people who favor gun rights as heartless monsters who don’t care about tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Christians portray secular humanists as hedonists out to strip society of its core values, while secular humanists accuse religions (including Christianity) of being responsible for most wars. Some Web sites seriously speculate whether Trump, Obama or even Pope Francis might be the Antichrist referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation.

Perhaps Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich best summed up the free-floating animosity when she observed: “Everyone needs someone to loathe. … I mean some group, some class, some club, some clique, some collection of humans who can be disdained and despised simply because they wear the wrong ID badge. … We all gnaw on prejudices against groups that threaten who we’d like to be or think we are. Sometimes our prejudices explode into cruelty, even if words are the only weapons in our attack.”

Of course, if I’m completely honest with myself, I must acknowledge my own contribution to the divisiveness. No, I haven’t broken windows or set buildings on fire at a demonstration, and I don’t make a habit of spewing profanities at people. But I’ll plead guilty to passing along Facebook memes that subtly – or not so subtly – make fun of people whose opinions differ from mine. I’ll cop to sometimes feeling smarter than, and even a bit morally superior to, those poor misguided people who disagree with me on various issues. I’ve promised more than once to stop posting political memes on Facebook, only to renege a short time later. I’ve finally settled on a promise to post at least one cute animal video for each political post. Good thing there are A LOT of cute animal videos in cyberspace.

During election season, my husband and I rationalized that our candidates had to “go negative” during their campaigns because their opponents did. Thus justified, I cheered when “my” candidate got in a good zinger during a debate or attack ad. I was quick to pounce when a candidate on The Other Side said or did something “wrong,” and equally quick to make excuses when my own candidate behaved the same way.

As a Christian, I’ve even been guilty of getting snarky about other Christians. When a fellow believer expresses an opposing view, I’ve said, “Do they read the Bible they’re thumping on?” One day in Sunday School class, someone asked the group, “Do you think [well-known person] is really a Christian?” I replied with the proverbial wink-and-nudge, “By their fruits we shall know them,” and was gratified when several people laughed. I should probably deposit a $20 fine in Rachel Held Evans’ Jar of Contention for that last one.

I don’t believe it’s “false equivalence” to suggest that each of us look for our part in a problem. Admittedly this is much less fun than wallowing in the mud hole we all seem to be submerged in at the moment. On the other hand, no positive change is going to happen and no real problems are going to be addressed effectively until we all can do this.