I’ve written before about how differences of opinion between my father and I can sometimes make our political discussions … tumultuous.
He is a lifelong Christian and I’m an atheist; he believes in restricting sex to marriage, and I identify as a sex-positive feminist who doesn’t think marriage or monogamy are requirements for having it; he thinks gay marriage shouldn’t be legal for religious reasons, and I think that all consenting adults, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the option of marriage. These differences of opinion are more easily defined with comfy ideological terminology by saying that my dad is very conservative and I am very liberal.
This major difference makes it understandably difficult for us to discuss my political writing, especially if he wants to give me advice. While visiting this weekend, he asked me if I had ever considered toning down my acerbity because of its potential to alienate readers who aren’t as liberal as I am.
“I’m worried that if people think that you’re just another far-left writer from the start, they won’t even finish the column,” my dad explained. “If you call someone a shithead -“
“I’ve never called anyone a shithead in my column!” I argued.
He gave me the look I’ve been getting since I was a little kid, the look reserved for when you’re caught prevaricating, like when you say you drank all your milk when you didn’t, or say that you don’t really like Star Wars just to piss him off. It’s a look that says I recognize your bullshit, and will patiently wait until you admit you’re not being exactly truthful.
It was a look well earned. No, I haven’t actually called someone a “shithead” in any of my columns (I don’t think …), but I have definitely used sarcasm to imply it. In situations where it would probably have been more persuasive or professional to explore and condemn the facts and not the person, I have chosen instead to be dismissive or inflammatory.
Although he didn’t invoke her name, my dad’s suggestion brought to mind my beloved Rachel Maddow, who manages to dominate her political opponents politely, clearly and without resulting to ad hominem attacks – you know, like “shithead.”
We went on to discuss just how inoffensive you have to be if you want to encourage people to rethink their opinions, while still maintaining your convictions. I was, and still am, conflicted about the line between speaking truth to power – calling the proponents of Arizona’s SB 1070 “racist” isn’t inaccurate because that’s exactly what they are, for example – and giving readers a spoonful of sugar along with an opposing viewpoint. I pointed out to my dad that being nice or rolling over or not calling out the authorities on human rights offenses only gives them license to carry on.
I was reminded, however, of how many times I’d come across a conservative article or interview and immediately hardened my feelings against them because of preconceptions. I’ve definitely switched the channel if I’m accidentally exposed to Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh (not Michael Savage, though. He goes beyond partisanship with his ridiculous ideas). But jabs aside, how many people have I alienated with this kind of attitude? How many opportunities to learn, and to teach, have I missed out on because of the ease of partisan mudslinging?
My dad and I didn’t resolve our debate – we never do, when it comes to politics – but it did convince me that I should make more attempts at diplomacy. Not because I want more people to like me (I have no illusions, based on some of the mail I get) and not because I don’t want to stir up debate, but because real debate takes place at a deeper level than name-calling and accusations given without solution.
HALEY DAVIS fulfilled her I-love-my-dad column quota for this year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.