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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 7:36 am | Fair 35º


Tim Durnin: Lamenting the End of Political Discourse

Let's fend off the bullies and address our problems by working together, listening and being heard

One of my enduring memories from college is sitting in a cafe in San Diego. It is raining, and a disparate and unconnected group of students, tourists and locals start talking, arguing and laughing over coffee. There are probably 30 folks in all.

Our unofficial gathering formed unexpectedly and without planning about 3 p.m. We ended up closing the place at midnight. It was one of those moments when I stopped in the middle of it all and told myself, “I wish this never had to end.”

This particular memory remains vivid because we really didn’t belong together. The group was from different backgrounds and political camps, even different states and countries. We all happened to stumble into the same diner to get out of the rain. We argued passionately, loudly at times and with abandon. In the end, I am sure we all left enriched by the encounter.

I miss talking. I miss intellectual disagreement. I miss informed and educated arguments and a good, thoughtful fight. In the 25 years since that encounter, such interactions are increasingly rare. And so I offer, over the next weeks, my insight and learning on the end of discourse, in three parts.

Part one details my lamentations over the loss and degradation of political discourse. In part two I delve into the now taboo arena of religious discourse. Finally, in part three, I mourn the decline of civil discourse.

Part One: The End of Political Discourse

I am watching a play, a comedy. One of the characters, a mugger, pulls out a copy of Sarah Palin’s Going Rouge from the shopping bag of the woman being mugged. At this moment a good portion of the audience erupts into loud, disruptive cheers, cat calls and applause. Here’s a tip. That wasn’t a punch line, and this isn’t a political rally.

The punch line comes when the mugger glances at the woman with a look of confusion and pity declaring, “You can keep this.” In this particular performance the humor got lost in the stunned silence that followed the unexpected and ill-timed outburst.

It is a silence that is increasingly familiar to me as ideologues on both sides of the political aisle hijack the conversation, escalate it past argument to attack, and claim victory based on sheer volume or intimidation. Any possible opposition easily surrenders or slinks silently away. The bullies are in charge of the playground.

Equally challenging is the complete unwillingness of these same ideologues to engage in any kind of constructive dialogue, any kind of civilized public debate. In my experience, this is most often because they really have no idea what to say.

It is almost silly to say so now, but as a student I was trained in argumentation, debate. Central to that training was the understanding that one ought to know the arguments on all sides of a particular issue as intimately as if they are one’s own.

As a result, if I intend to wade into the water of discourse on a particular issue, chances are I can argue my opponent’s case nearly as well as I can argue my own. In my world, understanding both or all sides of an issue comes before formulating a position and certainly before defending that position in a public forum.

I have discovered this is atypical of many political zealots. And herein lies an important distinction. It is the political zealots and media aroused and driven by extremists that define much of the current political climate, discussion and debate.

In this state of affairs, constructive, intellectual dialog becomes impossible. The media want conflict not conversation, and the zealots are largely incapable of thoughtful discourse. When asked to defend a particular position they spout the most recently inspired Glenn Beck cliche or Bill O’Reilly mantra.

It may appear as if I’m unfairly dumping on conservatives here. This is only because the liberal camps can’t seem to get even with their zealots on message, at least not with any effectual consistency. Such is the current state of the liberal agenda.

It’s time to get the bullies off the school yard. The vast majority of us are thoughtful, caring and a few steps off center in either direction. We can withstand the heat and intellectual challenge of a good debate. We understand that our problems will be solved while working together, by listening and being heard.

Here is my proposal. While Rush Limbaugh, Beck and the decimated far left stand in the corner, fingers in their ears, looking back at us with self-righteous grins while they yell like 3-year-olds, so as not to hear what is being said by the voices of reason, let’s take the playground back. Let’s talk to one another and listen. And together let’s wish, hope and pray this profound, spontaneous and thoughtful gathering never ends.

— Tim Durnin is a father, husband and writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for ideas, comments, discussion and criticism.

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