Monday, November 26, 2007

The Lost Art of Courteous Conversation

I was at dinner with relatives the day after Thanksgiving, and the topic of the 2008 Presidential elections came up. We discussed the pros and cons of the potential candidates on both sides, when out of the blue someone remarked, 'Even a chimp could do a better job than George Bush.' This statement was followed up by some similarly flippant remarks on his ability to articulate, his education and so on. Regardless of the fact that doing a better than George Bush cannot be a factor in the next elections (since Bush is not a possible candidate ayway), I didn't continue the discussion although a good critical look at many flawed Bush policies would have made good conversation at the dinner.

This brought me back to a column by Peggy Noonan about the courtesy to be observed in the give and take of political discourse, the gist being that we have lost the ability to dissect, disagree or criticize without being coarse. In it Noonan highlights Ann Coulter and Bill Maher in two separate incidents which made her wince- Coulter suggesting John Edwards was gay, and Maher mentioning a lot of lives could have been saved if Dick Cheney were dead.

Funny enough, when someone makes such a strong negative statement about a candidate, it makes me sympathize with the candidate a little. When Noonan herself sometimes goes overboard in her criticism of Mrs. Clinton it makes me want to understand her better, to believe that all this mud cannot be completely true of her.

Besides all this Ms. Noonan's column makes another interesting point. I quote it here:
Conservatives said they were chilled by Mr. Maher's comments, but I don't
think they were. They were delighted he revealed what they believe is at the
heart of modern liberalism, which is hate.

Liberals amused themselves making believe they were chilled by Ms.
Coulter's remarks, but they were not. They were delighted she has revealed what
they believe is at the heart of modern conservatism, which is hate.

The truth is many liberals were dismayed by Mr. Maher because he made
them look bad, and many conservatives were mad at Ms. Coulter for the same

I realized as I watched it all play out that there's a kind of simple
way to know whether something you just heard is something that should not have
been said. It is: Did it make you wince? When the Winceometer is triggered, it's
an excellent indication that what you just heard is unfortunate and ought not to
be repeated.

In both cases, Mr. Maher and Ms. Coulter, when I heard them, I winced.
Did you? I thought so. In modern life we wince a lot. It's not the worst thing,
but it's better when something makes you smile.

Good point, I think. We always feel chagrined when someone who claims to share our point of view misrepreents it by making a remark that you would always distance yourself from. It's good to remember that if you want people to listen you had better have something to give them than verbal abuse.

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