When the question was asked of Democratic presidential primary candidates, “Which enemies are you most proud of,” Hillary Clinton answered, “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, and the Iranians – probably the Republicans.”
In response to this, then-candidate Jim Webb said, “Americans are disgusted by all this talk of Republicans and Democrats calling each other the enemy instead of reaching across the aisle and finding ways to work together. I know what an enemy really is, from hard personal experience in combat. The other party in America is not the enemy; they are the opposition. In our democracy we are lucky to have an opposition, in order to have honest debate.”
My grandparents still scratch their heads over the current political rancor. People of their generation had their differences, but fighting side by side in World War II and Korea made their shared humanity obvious and their differences impersonal. They had seen each other sacrifice for the cause of freedom, and trusted the good motives even of people who voted differently from them.
Last fall I posted my support for traditional marriage on social media – the town hall of my generation, the post-Millennials. I made a positive statement, saying nothing critical. I stood up for my beliefs, I showed respect for those who disagreed, but it didn’t matter. I was suddenly a personal enemy, even to friends with whom I’d been close, people who knew me, knew that I don’t hate anyone. But I had committed a cardinal sin: I had shared an unpopular opinion.
Months of bullying followed that post. Other high schoolers – young social justice warriors – began to tweet and sub-tweet about me, as was reported to me by classmates, some of whom were concerned, others gleeful. One former friend told me he felt sorry for my family for having to live with me. Another suggested I remove my post and meet him in the future for some “re-education” sessions (not kidding). Others accused me of not being aware of my straight, white privilege. They suddenly didn’t use normal language, instead resorting to a creepy reflection of leftist talking points. In one shocking instant, people who had been my friends were vitriolic enemies.
Although much of the bullying was obvious and took place in the classroom, not one teacher even acknowledged it. My vice-principal was sympathetic, and suggested that I leave social media. Believing the First Amendment to apply as much to me as anyone, I chose to stay in the arena. I received private thanks from people who agreed with me, but who didn’t dare speak out, especially knowing there would be no protection from school authorities. Although I was thankful for the support, it had the effect of underlining my solitude.
In a strange incongruity, my political bullies have been taught that their ends (“a just society”) justify their means (dehumanizing dissenters). As a target of Alinskyite tactics, I’d like to assert what I used to assume was obvious; civility in discourse matters. Why?
First, incivility is counter-productive. It does not win converts or invite introspection.
Second, ugly dialogue further divides us. Rather than enduring verbal abuse, we just stop talking about important issues. This leaves us in an echo chamber where we hear only opinions we already agree with. When opponents become strangers, their beliefs sound so outrageous and bizarre that we find them shocking and offensive, and assume the worst about what motivates them.
Third, if our conviction is honest, we shouldn’t fear submitting it to the test. Courteous disagreement is constructive, while smothering dissent is an admission that our policies can’t withstand scrutiny.
Finally, disrespect for one another is morally wrong. The New Testament teaches: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” The Quran instructs, “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.” From Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” The Talmud says, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Every world religion has a version of this standard because it is self-evident that if we want to be treated well, so do others.
Without civil dialogue, we lose political discourse, common solutions to problems, and our shared sense of identity. There is no place for such ugly tactics in a democratic republic. Our generation needs to put a stop to them.
Emma Marcois is a high school senior and the founding president of her school’s Young Conservatives club.