Discourse Civil and Otherwise
By Gordon Cucullu
November 14, 2008
Many of us decry the apparent lack of civil discourse in political affairs as if this is a new trait in American politics. It helps to have a longer historical memory. Huey Long barnstormed through Louisiana campaigns with lines like youd have to run a finetooth comb through hell to find a bigger SOB than my opponent. Hamilton and Burr fought a duel that prematurely removed one of Americas finest minds from the process. Fistfights broke out on the floor of Congress and members threw inkwells at each other.
Nor was physical conflict the only consistent characteristic of the American political process. Verbal attacks have been part of the Republic since inception. Abraham Lincoln, who was brutally vilified in his lifetime, commented, If I care to listen to every criticism, let alone act on them, then this shop may as well be closed for all other businesses. Though dismissing such comments, we know that they depressed Lincoln and that he recoiled from personal attack. While it is certainly a fact that sticks and stones break bones, words are also very hurtful.
Todays battle of words has expanded from conversation and the print media into radio, television, film, and the Internet. Each of these tools offers a unique range of discourse and varying limits of emotion. You are more inclined to get into a fistfight over a heated conversation than reading a hostile op-ed in the New York Times. The old folks coined the dictum never discuss politics or religion for good reason. They knew that human emotions dominate face-to-face talk. They also were aware that spoken words unleashed are free to run wild irretrievably.
For those who write or speak on contemporary issues, who opine or comment on controversial issues, our challengers are legion. The barroom reference to opinions and a certain private anatomical region plays a big part. One of the paradoxical characteristics of America is that we are very protective of our professional and personal skills. Try telling a plumber or an artist how to fix their work and youll get an earful.
On the other hand, every American is an economic, foreign policy, and military affairs expert. Doubt it? Just ask.
With the advent of Internet blogs and chats we vainly dig our way out from the avalanche of terabytes of opinions, ideas, and commentary. In keeping with the less angelic side of human nature, they lean toward the negative and, too often, hateful.
So how can you whether in conversation, commentary, or written word quickly discern the validity and value of your critic (or supporter, for one must be even more wary of blind support than blind attack)? Here are five principles that I use to assess merit to comments on my work. They originate in various mindsets that typify what the Godfather said. I cant reason with this person. Since it is usually too much trouble to make them an offer they cant refuse, you are best off ignoring them. Perhaps this catalog of human frailty will prove useful to you and make the words less hurtful.
1. Emotion-based comments are essentially empty. When a person falls back on words like feel, hunch, or mood then you are dealing with a true-believer. As Eric Fromm describes this mentality, The true believer considers himself to be worthless and powerless and invests all value and all power in the cause. These folks are impervious to logic, facts, and hypotheticals. They feel what they feel, and have imprinted a belief system on their minds, usually based on intangibles. They are rarely capable of persuasion and ought not occupy your time and effort.
2. Those in denial are unapproachable. When you hear the words Well, I dont know, but that translates to I think you are wrong. These are people who will deny, for example, that the surge in Iraq is working despite contrary evidence. They have drawn a mentally uncrossable line in the sand for themselves, and will brook no hard fact that contradicts their preconceived notions. Argument with them, even civil, quickly descends to a retreat into mental castles with the moat drawn and oil boiling. Withdrawal with honor is a preferable approach to futile counter-attack.
3. People who fall back on personal attacks are vacuous and contemptible. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, stupidity is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Not that the purveyors of this canard are necessarily ignorant themselves though have no doubt many stand high on the pyramid of limited mental acuity but they are extraordinarily deft at levying the charge of stupidity at any and all who disagree with their perceptions. Political opponents of these people are by their definition stupid, ignorant, ill-informed, and chronic liars. Dismiss them as the dolts they are without undue angst over their comments.
4. Those who invent facts are essentially dishonest. Few of these people bother to do adequate research. Nor will they willingly accept information that refutes their position. Instead they will launch into an attack loaded with bogus facts and statistics that unfailingly support their argument. When faced with contrary facts especially well-documented ones they often fall back on personal attack as a default position. Once you have presented your factual, documented argument leave them to work things out without you.
5. Conspiracy theorists are the most entertaining. A wonderful thing about conspiracy theorists is their absolutist inflexibility against persuasion and their amazing flexibility in ability to accommodate everything that happens into their theory. Contrary facts? The government is covering up. See how good they are at it? When you run into the grassy knoll, Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, and its-all-about-oil crowd you are best advised to beat a hasty retreat. Otherwise you are only going to reinforce their dire suspicions and yourself become part of the conspiracy.
6. Bumper-sticker philosophers reflect shallowness. Since the Make Love Not War and Shit Happens bumper-stickers fad exploded in the sixties, the automobile rear end has been, for some horses rear ends, a place to express political sentiment. Unfortunately this phenomenon is not restricted to ideology, so Al Qaeda for Obama stickers compete with BUSHITLER and Abort Palin for supremacy among the brain dead. Bumper-sticker people speak in coded road-rage phrases in an attempt self expression. Its best to treat them as reckless drivers, pull over and let them speed off to their petty destinations.
So what kinds of discourse ought you take seriously? Essentially, the converse of the above. Pay attention to rational, flexible, fact-based, non-personal, unemotional comments especially if they are different from your position and treat them as a mutual growth opportunity. If you arent learning, youre shrinking. When you deal with people who preface statements with qualifiers like I understand that and Ive heard that, it usually indicates willingness to listen and discuss.
Perhaps the greatest gift any of us can have is the ability to listen a trait notoriously scarce among the male and political species. Real listening means focusing on what your discussant is saying without champing at the bit to interrupt with your version, finishing sentences, or emitting an expletive. It takes practice and focus.
One trick to good listening is to learn quickly what is valuable to head and learn from and what is discardable junk. I hope this little essay helps clarify the distinction.
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I'm a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel, Vietnam War veteran and career officer, and now a writer. After serving more than thirteen years in East Asia I was sent on assignments in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and eventually worked Korea and East Asian affairs at both the Pentagon and Department of State.
My many adventures since then have included raising llamas and alpacas in upstate New York, serving as the Executive Director of the Korea Society in Manhattan, working as an international marketing VP for General Electric in Asia, and traveling within corners of the world that few have had the privilege of experiencing.
In April-May 2008 I spent a month embedded with Military Police units in Iraq. Stories from my trip are posted at supportamericansoldiers.com — a book about what I saw and learned is also in the making.
My first book Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin was published in September 2004.
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