This morning I listened to a civil debate between surrogates for Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont.
Then, I read this quote from Buck O'Neil, a self-described "proud ... Negro League ballplayer," on the occasion of the induction this week of 17 Negro leaguers and Negro leagues executives into the National Baseball Hall of Fame:
And I tell you what: They always said to me, "Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks." I said, "No, man, I never learned to hate."
I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer. I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can't hate a human being, because my God never made anything so ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you want to, but God didn't make you that way.
It got me thinking again about one of the points that Mary Sue Terry made in the great speech she gave at the recent Virginia Women in Politics Conference. After speaking thoughtfully about the need to use long-term thinking in solving current issues and avoiding lost opportunities, Terry urged careful consideration of the language of politics. She expressed concern about language that makes politics a war or battle rather than a conversation or discussion. She talked about the need to change the nature of political discourse. She urged women not to participate in the use of "war" and "battle" language in politics. She reminded the audience that the language used can become a predictor of behavior.
This is a theme I have visited before. In spring 2000, I asked noted linguist Deborah Tannen, who had just published her book, The Argument Culture: Stopping the War of Words, to address the language of conflict in politics at the annual Southern Women in Politics Conference held that year in Northern Virginia. She has spoken and written about this here, here and here.
... there's something deeper that I'm trying to talk about-the power of words to frame how you think about things, how you feel about things, how you perceive the world. The tendency in our culture to use war metaphors so pervasively, and to frame everything as a metaphorical battle, influences how we approach each other in our everyday lives. We end up thinking problems are insoluble, because we have allowed the polarized extremes to frame the debate.
In March 2005, I wrote a piece titled: "Let's Change the Language of Politics -- It's Time to Stop the Hate." Writing about the use of the term "hate," particularly by Kerry supporters, in the 2004 presidential campaign, I said:
I have trouble understanding why many of my politically passionate friends (regardless of party affiliation) without hesitation describe their disagreement with particular politicians on policy as reasons to "hate" that person. ...
I believe "hate" is a term that should be reserved for persons whose actions are so antithetical to common decency and civility, such an affront to our common humanity, that they should provoke a visceral, unreasoned antipathy among all people of good heart and right reason.
Should we not "hate" our captors if we were Iraqi prisoners subjected to abuse and torture or the relatives of kidnapped civilians beheaded on video for worldwide consumption? Should we not "hate" terrorists who purposely kill civilians to make a political point? Should we not "hate" bigots who maim and kill solely because someone is of another race, religion or sexual orientation? ...
This is an important lesson to learn for those of us participating in the debates of this campaign season about candidates and issues, including the Marshall/Newman amendment.
What troubles me about the almost routine use of the term "hate" to describe people with whom we disagree in our daily discourse on matters of public concern is that it desensitizes us to the real meaning of the term and the emotion and passion that it normally evokes.
Can leaders and parents teach tolerance or expect tolerance from our children when we are so ready to describe objects of mere political disagreements as people we "hate"? ...
Before we continue to speak about our political opponents as people we "hate", we should think about the message we are sending to our children about when it is okay to "hate." We should not be teaching our children that it is okay to "hate" anyone just because they have different beliefs, unless those beliefs are so abhorrent that they shock the conscience.
We should consider the words of President George Washington, and ask ourselves before we speak if our words will live up to his expectation of the "demeanor" of "good citizens":
"Happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demeanor themselves as good citizens."
We should give bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance by sending the wrong messages to those we lead or nurture. As Max DePree says in his book Leadership Jazz, "[w]e are dealing with God's mix, people made in God's image, a compelling mystery." "We are all authentic in our own right; no person awards us authenticity; we are born with it."
No one is worthy of hate, when that assessment is made only because they bring to that mix a different point of view, a different tradition of faith or a different political position.
We do ourselves and our causes no good if we stoop to name-calling and demonizing our opponents. We teach our children the wrong lessons if we teach them through the language we use that it is okay to hate someone for their beliefs or their being or that politics is a "battle" or "boxing match" properly "fought" from opposite "extremes" or opposing "corners."
Anyone who doubts the power of words to incite behavior need look no further than the recent incident of hate violence against a gay couple living peaceably in Loudoun County. Can anyone doubt that words of hate fueled the attack there?
I haven't quite gotten out of the habit of participating in the use of "fighting" references in my political lexicon, as Mary Sue recommended. But, I'm working on it. Bad habits are hard to break and good habits are hard to keep.
What I do know is this.
Hearts and minds are not changed by force of battle. They are led to change by love and the gentle persuasion of conversation and thoughtful consideration.