Assuming the worst about the other side

Published on Thursday, 2 January 2014 21:34 - Written by

We have called for civility in public debate and discussion in the coming year. A good first step is for everyone, on all sides, to stop impugning the motives of their opponents. Claiming your opponent is evil or greedy or racist is an easy way to avoid refuting his arguments. It’s too easy, and too tempting for many public voices to resist.

That’s not to say evil, greed and racism don’t exist, or shouldn’t be addressed. But in 2014, let’s all agree to debate ideas and policies, rather than too quickly attacking the other side’s motives and character.

“Shouting ‘racism’ in a crowded media and political theater has become a substitute for thought and debate in America,” John Fund writes in National Review. “Liberals hated it in the 1950s when extreme conservatives such as those of the John Birch Society smeared many they disagreed with by labeling them ‘Communists.’”

That same dynamic exists currently.

“Today, it damages our discourse when a respected figure such as Oprah Winfrey suggests that some critics of President Obama are racist,” Fund notes. “You don’t have to be Oprah Winfrey to have a platform that lets you make unsubstantiated charges of racism. ABC’s Cokie Roberts, normally a calm analyst, dismissed the Supreme Court’s June decision that set some limits on federal interference in local election laws, casting it as a throwback to the days when blacks were blocked from voting in many states.”

Those on the right today aren’t innocent, either. Too often Obama’s policies (particularly the Affordable Care Act) are dismissed as “socialism,” when in fact Obama modeled the ACA on MassCare, a system set up by Massachusetts Republican then-Gov. Mitt Romney.

Many even claim Obama wants to destroy the American health care system.

That’s an attack on motives — not policies. Obamacare is an easy enough target. Why should opponents have to impugn Obama’s intentions, when the actual policies are so rife with flaws and holes?

But these days, the worst charge is racism. Just uttering the word in a political discussion is enough to shut it down.

“Careless accusations of racism can sometimes do as much damage to race relations as the expression of prejudice and ignorance can. Both can poison the political well for everyone,” Fund adds.

He points out that at no time did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. charge his main opponents, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, “racist,” even though Sen. Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King didn’t see it as a valid (or supportable) political tactic.

“Would that those who claim the mantle of King today were so careful in their research and so restrained in their language,” Fund writes. “Fighting racism is important business. It shouldn’t be sullied or cheapened by those who too often treat the term as the easiest political club to grab.”

By all means let’s discuss policies and politics in 2014; important issues will be decided that will affect us and our children for years to come.

But let’s do so with civility, not resorting to attacks on motives.