Last week, I had the great fortune to share Thanksgiving dinner with a man who is dying.
He’s very conservative. I’m very liberal. We talked about all the things people aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company.
Of Donald Trump, the tactless businessman still leading the Republican field for president, he said he’s as impressed as he is irked. Of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, he told me how he wears his “Blue Lives Matter” T-shirt to Walmart and “gets funny looks” from people. And if I had to guess, I’d say my debate opponent is firmly in the anti-abortion camp.
In short, we have almost nothing in common, politically. But we managed to have an hours-long, civil conversation anyway. There were no insults and there was no bloodshed – proof that such discourse can actually happen at a time when, more and more, it seems as though it can’t.
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Words matter. If many of us have learned anything during the past few weeks, we’ve learned that. Words from you. Words from me. Words from anyone.
Words don’t carry the immediate and deadly consequences of a gun, but they can influence and enrage people, and create havoc all the same – especially when they emerge from the mouths of people holding the biggest microphones.
In this era of seemingly never-ending cultural wars, we’d all be well-served to remember that. In this toxic, divided environment that, sadly, has become the United States, we must learn to watch what we say and how we say it. If not, we risk more of the same.
Such as the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs on Friday.
Police say Robert Dear marched into the already heavily fortified clinic, took hostages and started a gunbattle that lasted five hours. Three people died, including a police officer, and another nine were wounded.
Dear’s motives, along with his mental state, are unknown. But we do know he mumbled something about “no more baby parts” to officers, undoubtedly a reference to the false charge that Planned Parenthood has been illegally selling fetal organs.
That, of course, is a lie that Republican presidential candidates have been repeating, exploiting and exaggerating, usually with the most inflammatory and toxic language possible. Such as Carly Fiorina, who talked about “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ ” Yeah, that never happened.
Not that inflammatory language is purely the domain of Republicans. Some correctly point to some reckless words coming from some in the Black Lives Matter movement, most notably a group in Texas who alarmed police by chanting “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”
Again, that does no one any good. Not when so many cities remain on edge.
Cities such as Baltimore, where the first police officer accused in the death of Freddie Gray went on trial Monday, and Chicago, where prosecutors finally released a video showing the execution-style police shooting of black teen Laquan McDonald.
We need people at all levels who can defuse these situations, not people who will make them worse. We don’t need people such as Trump, who saw fit not only to justify, but to encourage a group of white supporters to punch and shove a Black Lives Matter activist for shouting “Dump the Trump” at one of his campaign rallies in Alabama.
“Maybe he should have been roughed up,” Trump said. No, that’s not OK for anyone to say, especially someone running for president.
This isn’t about being politically correct. It isn’t about being dishonest. It’s about finding our way back to the the words and civil discourse that an old Republican reminded me matter.