Archive for Thursday, September 17, 2009

Debate requires participants shut up and listen

September 17, 2009

The country was treated last week to two examples of unrestrained egos. Like the craziest of fans crying for an umpire's blood at a baseball game, Congressman Joe Wilson and rapper Kanye West both felt empowered to hijack a moment and an audience that was not theirs. In their megalomania, their opinions and their emotional responses were all that mattered.

West was a buffoon grabbing the spotlight at an event infamous for outlandish displays. In contrast, Wilson's faux pas was more outlandish because it came in a sitting at which respect is the norm.

It would be comforting to think last week's two boorish displays were aberrations that happened within days of each other by some sort of strange happenstance. But that would be to overlook the similarity of the two men's behavior to the disruptions at various congressional town hall meetings in July and August. Those disrupters, too, felt the passion of their opinions gave them license to be disruptive and shoot down contrary views.

It was disappointing those displays meant to drown out discourse weren't universally condemned but excused, even encouraged, by some congressional leaders as displays of righteous outrage. That's a very shortsighted position in a day the Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for organization a motivated opposition to nearly every policy issue.

If that doesn't give the political enablers pause, perhaps evidence of the ineffectiveness of rhetorical terrorism will. Recent polling indicates health care reform supporters are rapidly making up the "passion gap." Not surprisingly, the tactics of the town hall protesters polarized rather than persuaded.

We shouldn't be surprised that one of last week's bad boys was from the world of entertainment and the other from politics. It is the marriage of those two worlds, the cable TV talk shows that parody political debate, that provides all a daily example of debate by decibel at the expense of insight.

We can’t expect a debate of the level of Lincoln-Douglas, but we demand debate. That requires we shut up and listen to the views of others.


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