Debate or argument?

I really need to stop reading the letters to the editor in newspapers and magazines. I don’t understand why editors of newspapers like the “Grand Forks Herald” print some of the letters they do. I do understand that there is a need to publish opinions that come from many sides of issues. I know that most often we write letters when we feel great passion for the subject, so I’m not surprised that letters to the editor present strongly held positions. I don’t know what purpose there is in printing letters from people who use name calling and intolerance as the basis for writing.

Last week, in one single issue of the “Grand Forks Herald,” there were two letters so filled with anger and hate, that I failed to see what purpose was served by printing them. One letter was supposedly written in defense of the Tea Party. The letter was filled with misinformation, name calling, sound bites and vitriol. The writer repeated Texas governor Rick Perry’s assertion that Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes and went a step farther and claimed we are being forced to participate in these onerous programs at gun point. The letter went on and on, using pejorative language toward anyone disagreeing with this person’s opinion. The poor are lazy. The old and disabled are recipients of the fruits of a con game. Those in power and elected to govern are stupid, crooked and worse.

The second letter involved the UND logo. Again those who opposed this second writer’s view point were characterized as “activists” and opposition to the use of the name and logo were dismissed as frivolous and an example of deceitful, political correctness.

Neither of these letters offered any positive solutions to problems. The authors seemed sure that their positions are the “Truth” and other points of view are either based on stupidity or outright fraud. I have quit reading on-line comments to news articles or opinion pieces. The anonymity of the internet and the greater lack of editorial discretion allows an even higher level of negativity, hate and divisive language than what is printed in the newspaper.

How can we solve any of our problems if writers of letters to the editor and on-line commentators are representative of how we seek to resolve disagreement? Is this attitude one that is being encouraged by those leading our country? Is it being fed by news media that looks for stories that sell? Is it being stimulated by talk shows that specialize in confrontational dynamics? Are our elected representatives deliberately using this kind of irreconcilable conflict to divide us? Or, are the people we elect, the people who present us with the news, and those who fill the airways reflecting the rest of us and how we talk, think and try to solve disagreements?

While angry indignation might feel good for a moment, it rarely changes anyone else’s mind. Hateful, derogatory language almost never produces a positive resolution to an argument. Bullying may result in the bully’s getting their way for the short term, but doesn’t result in solutions to the problems at hand.

We have serious problems in this country. The issues which confront us are complicated and intertwined. There are no simple solutions. Our nation will not be well served by drawing lines in the sand. For someone in a position of power, such as Texas Governor Rick Perry, to characterize Social Security as a Ponzi scheme is irresponsible. At best, it was a poor choice of words. Such language will not help come to a solution for how we, as a society, provide for people who work most of their lives and because of age or disability, find themselves unable to afford the basics of living.

It is time for those we have elected to our local, our state, and our national governments, to quit the name calling, sound bite generation, and political game playing. We need states men and women who are working together for the common good of our communities, our states and our nation.

Maybe it is we, the citizens who elect them, who need to begin by minding our own tongues and learning how to engage in civil debate. Perhaps then we can demand the same from those we elect.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains