Does Name-Calling Politics Improve Your Argument?

In this photo combination, President Barack Obama, left, reaches out to shake hands after speaking at a campaign event at Cap
In this photo combination, President Barack Obama, left, reaches out to shake hands after speaking at a campaign event at Capital University on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio and Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, shakes hands with supporters after finishing his speech during a rally at Guerdon Enterprises in Boise, Idaho Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. Two months out from Election Day, nearly a quarter of all registered voters are either undecided about the presidential race or iffy in their support for a candidate, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows. These voters could well prove decisive in a close contest. And they will be tough nuts for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to crack. (AP Photo)

In the polite city of Portland, Oregon, I eavesdropped on the animated conversation at the table next to me. As they spoke about the Ryan budget the first grenade was thrown: "You are an ass---e," which elicited the response, "No, you are an idiot." It was reflective of our lack of national civil discourse. Surely we can do better than dismissive labels? Our lives and future are at stake.

As the name-calling intensified these business professionals were unable to navigate the deeply held Democratic and Republican positions that they each supported, instead choosing verbal grenades over discussion. I thought of the wisdom Desmond Tutu learned from his father, "Don't raise your voice. Improve your argument." Wisdom that my fellow diners and our country would do well to imbibe.

Labels of Despair? When we label someone, we do two things. We exert control over another person and assume our own superiority and power. We also dismiss or relegate the person being labeled to a status that is less fully human than our own. It is a combustible mix. The need to label typically emerges from our own insecurity, despair about our situation or a perceived threat from another.

There is no shortage of despair among millions of Americans who are unemployed or unemployable. But the friends at the table next to me are, judging from their comments, fully employed successful business people. Their labels of despair revealed the paucity of their arguments. Disregarding labels of despair is a prerequisite to choosing vibrant healthy discussions of ideas and policies.

Silo Friends? They continued to lob verbal grenades with one declaring, "I just don't know if you can be my friend anymore." The comment brought home the truth of the studies that reveal an increasing polarization among Americans. It is a lackluster way of being human to choose to turn inward and only have Red or Blue, FOX or MSNBC silo friends.

With silo friends we declare retreat from engaging with the world. It may serve to bolster the desire for conflict avoidance but it proclaims that we do not need one another in all of our differences. Instead it is possible to lower our voices and engage in the stories and experiences that lead us to positions on the budget, the freedom to marry, freedom of choice and immigration. It's in the stories that our common humanity is revealed because stories are authentic expressions of our humanness. The question then becomes whether specific policies enhance or detract from our shared humanity and citizenship.

Parallel Universes? I wondered if the spicy food on their plates or their disregarding dismissiveness would be cause for heartburn for those at the table next to me. When one declared yet again, "You are an idiot," it was rejoined with, "No, you are a f---ing idiot." I wondered what parallel universes these supposed friends inhabit. Their apparent business successes revealed a strikingly different lack of willingness to find common ground and dignify difference.

The significant policy differences and visions for the United States laid out by the two presidential tickets invite robust conversation. Dismissive unwillingness to honor and discuss a position with which you disagree is creating parallel universes for many. That serves only those who do not want public scrutiny to reveal the full impact of their policies. If the political goal is to limit the term and effectiveness of a president or elected official by creating parallel universes our future will be one of sustained stasis and conflict. Such a churlish reality is not predestined if we make choices to not indulge it and instead expect real discussion of policies that impact all Americans. The hallmarks of our generosity and democracy are at stake.

Happiness or Pain Virus? Those at the table next to me left the restaurant fuming at one another. I wondered how their inability to have real conversation reflected on our collective national pursuit of happiness colliding with the pain and worry about the future that is on the minds of so many Americans. A pain and worry that we seem determined not to name, at least not too often or publicly.

Boomers have a propensity for seeking happiness while Generations X and Y more freely acknowledge the realities of pain and worry and how they affect happiness. American resilience and ingenuity is best served when those factors are addressed, not through the politics of disingenuous avoidance of them, but with compassionate respect. Those around me were resolute in their avoidance about what the competing experiences of pain, happiness and worry might present as opportunities. Authenticity invites solutions which, in turn, spark human hope. It is not too late for us to expect and demand that in this political season.

As those at the table next to me got up to leave my relief at the prospect of enjoying the rest of my meal was put on hold as one of them said, "You know I can't imagine how we can still be friends." It's time for us to choose between a course of further fracturing our shared humanity or imagine friendships rooted in difference, respect and oneness. "A---hole" politics, language and labels diminishes all. Lowering the temperature and improving our argument may be good for all of us because who we are as a people is at stake.