Monday, September 10, 2012

Political Powwow

Sorry I’ve been gone so long! I was going to spend this re-emergent blog talking about bullying and how it can affect a whole family to the point where other activities (like blogging) become just too much—and I will—but there’s something I’d like to discuss first. We parents need to have a little powwow about politics.

I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind about what they believe or whom they admire or how they’re going to vote. Frankly, I’ve met very few people who ever changed their mind after a rousing debate with a proponent from the “other side.” My concern, parent to parent, is about what we’re teaching our kids about how to process political disagreement and how to respond to people whose beliefs are different from theirs.

I’m not really even advocating open-mindedness, to be honest. (I know that sounds odd, but hear me out.) While we do tend to think of open-mindedness as a positive trait, my own mind—while progressive—is actually pretty rigid. My beliefs about human rights and gay marriage and global warming and foreign wars are evolving, certainly, but they are set enough that I can’t honestly say I’d be open to changing my mind about them after hearing from someone who believes differently. What is open, though, is my heart. I believe that most people in the world, regardless of their politics, want many of the same basic things, and that we can agree to be gentle in our disagreements about the details. Passive? No. Yielding in our beliefs? No. But respectful? I think we can do that.

This week, a teenage girl from Ohio found herself in a media whirlwind after she tweeted, “Someone needs to assassinate Obama… like ASAP”—followed by a hashtag dripping with expletives. That impulsively hateful declaration resulted in consequences the young lady probably never even remotely considered. She is being investigated by the Secret Service and may face federal charges for threatening the president. Even though she is still a couple of years shy of being old enough to vote, her momentary lapse in judgment was actually a pretty big deal. I wonder what lesson she will take away from the experience. Will her parents sit with her and talk about how to appropriately share political frustration? Will the family discuss limits to protected speech and positive ways to channel a desire for change in the world? Or will they hold the investigation as further proof that their disdain for the current administration is well founded? Will they deepen the hatred that gave rise to this unfortunate public misstep, or will they look inward for places to begin making changes?

It’s not surprising when impressionable young people spew vitriolic insults when that is what they are fed—by their parents, by the media, and by their own political representatives. Do we, as parents, want to raise a generation of children who believe the only effective way to argue is to spew insults and eviscerate the other side? Facebook and Twitter are full of political venom these days, and not just from hotheaded teens. It’s all about Us versus Them and how awful The Other Guy is, leaving us needing to remind ourselves that The Other Guy is actually a dear friend or colleague or former classmate.

What can we do to re-set the tone of the public discourse? How can we, as parents and senior members of the society, best guide our children to be respectful and involved citizens? What do you think? Please add your (respectful) comments below.

(When we’ve got the kids on the right track, maybe some of us could get started on the grown-ups.)

P.S. Full disclosure here: I’m not claiming perfection on keeping the tone positive. The last time I did door-to-door canvassing for a presidential candidate, my then four-year-old son walked to the door with me and said in his sweet little voice at the door, “[your guy] sucks!” Respect is an ongoing life lesson.