Over at his blog, Brazen Maverick, one of our students, Sam Sarver, echoes a conversation that has been happening here about the difficulty of communication across the ideological divide. He was singularly unimpressed with Sarah Palin’s performance in Thursday’s debate but recognizes that others (I would be among them) thought that she did quite well, albeit with neither syntax or word choice calculated to appeal to academic types.
Mr. Sarver wonders whether people holding what seem to be radically differing perceptions of reality can ever talk to one another. I think that they can, but mostly they don’t.
My way of looking at these matters is that political dialogue occurs at two levels. That part that is directed to the public at large is largely oversimplified and, because of the public’s limited attention span and (perhaps rational) unwillingness to inform itself on political questions, largely conducted in bad faith. Thus, the Obama campaign continues to run a radio spot here in Wisconsin about John McCain’s position on stem cell research that is demonstrably false. The McCain campaign (and, yes, it is hard and painful for me to offer an example) runs an ad on Obama supporting sex education for kindergarten kids that suggests far more than the facts support.
These things are not a product of the dimwittedness or perfidy of the candidates. Try to run a campaign any other way.
But discourse about politics can be different. People of differing positions can listen to what their opponents have to say and acknowledge its implications. They can decline the temptation to misstate what the other side has said. They can try to explain, with candor and respect, why they disagree without clinging to the self-flattery that the only people that take the opposing views are venal, clueless or, as we often hear from one side about the other, both.
This type of conversation occurs all the time, if rarely for mass consumption. It doesn’t mean that we will all come to agree with one another or that there is common ground on which all will feel equally comfortable. We have legitimate reasons for disagreement.
But taking a political opponents seriously and presuming her good faith can be both humbling and humanizing. Try it.