Without respect, there’s no ‘more perfect union’

If I could one day have some personal impact on the world, it would not be to advance a social or political issue, even though, like anyone, I feel strongly about certain issues. It would be to advance the level of respect and self-control we all employ when we promote the social and political ideals we hold, whatever they may be. Civility in public discourse is hardly a novel topic these days, but two separate encounters this week emphasized what a challenge we face, and, frankly, left me more than a little discouraged.

The first was a not-atypical email complaint from a reader who said in an unsigned missive, responding to Jim Davis’s Sunday column, that “rarely is a conservative columnist presented” on our Opinion page and “almost all submissions” are from “leftists,” making us “handmaidens for the democrats (sic) and the left!” Setting aside the clear insult in the writer’s tone, I couldn’t help wondering whether he deliberately ignored a substantial portion of what we regularly present on our Opinion page.

I replied to point out that of 18 editorial cartoons we had published in the past two weeks, six had a decidedly conservative bent, including one that called Bill Clinton a “sex assaulter,” one that showed Democrats lobbing “Trump attacks” from behind a soldier’s flag-draped coffin and one that showed Hillary Clinton’s dossier attacks on President Donald Trump blowing up in her face. Of course, we had some liberal-oriented cartoons, too, in that period (six as it turned out) and some that weren’t particularly partisan (also six). I also pointed out that we routinely publish the viewpoints of conservatives like Walter E. Williams and Byron York, as well as many other noted conservative thinkers on state and national topics. My point being, as I’ve often stated, that the goal of our Opinion page, in addition to presenting the newspaper’s institutional voice on matters of importance to the suburbs, is to engage and challenge readers from every vantage point on the key issues of the day. Our belief is that confronting ideas you don’t agree with helps you deepen the positions you hold just as much as cheering ideas you do agree with does — and may lead you to change your mind. Either way, the republic is strengthened through the democratic exchange of ideas.

The email writer’s response, also not atypical in such circumstances, was essentially that our efforts are insufficient and, by implication, insincere.

Then arrived in the mail an envelope containing only a folded-up tear sheet of an Opinion page bearing the hand-scrawled message in bold-black marker, “SO LIBERAL, NOT WORTH READING.” A large black “L” marked five offending items — including the aforementioned cartoon criticizing Democrats, a letter saying that Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t conservative enough and a Lee Hamilton column expressing faith that Americans can rise above our present climate of toxic discourse. Granted, he also was offended by a letter critical of Vice President Mike Pence’s show of protest against kneeling football players and a Kathleen Parker column praising — let’s be clear, Republican — former President George Bush for remarks critical of President Trump. But of five items branded as “liberal” in this reader’s mind, two were demonstrably conservative, one praised traditional American values and one at least sided with a president whose conservative credentials were never previously challenged.

How, I wondered, do we, any of us, hope to make a constructive difference in the world if we are so willing either to ignore blatant evidence disputing our own point of view or to discredit the motives behind the evidence? This is, I think, one of the most important questions we face today, and I don’t mean to suggest it comes entirely from one end of the political spectrum. We hear it from both ends. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’m sometimes guilty, too. I bet you are sometimes, as well. It is a natural impulse to want to win an argument, which of course is what much of that which appears on the Opinion page strives to do. But the larger aim of the page itself is to rise above argument and let discussion lead to better decisions on matters of policy and behavior.

I agree with the theme of Hamilton’s previously maligned column, which stated that Americans “believe in the words of the Constitution’s preamble, ‘To strive for a more perfect union.’ ” It can be discouraging to confront so many people who believe that that “more perfect union” will come only through the elimination of any view they disdain. Still, I trust that the reason the arc of history bends toward justice is in the democratic process of debate and persuasion that demands we all acknowledge and respect the ideals others espouse, even as we promote and defend our own. None of the political ideals we hold has meaning, it occurs to me, if that one isn’t upheld.

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