A few weeks ago I spent a wonderful morning at a national wildlife refuge in Rhode Island. At the end of my meanderings, a fellow birdwatcher stopped to chat and we had a pleasant 20 minutes discussing white-eyed vireos and our favorite places to bird. Toward the end of our conversation, he turned the subject to politics, and at first I was interested in what he had to say. But soon he was trembling with rage, at President Obama, the Congress, foolish liberals and the like. As soon as I saw his disposition, I backed right off and tried to calm the waters. I resorted to simply nodding my head and was soon glad to get away.
My acquaintance was a victim of the apparently widespread delusion that strong opinions are a worthy substitute for factual argument and that the more vehemently you express these opinions, the more valid they are. Join this to the idea that everyone has a license to berate others and a pleasant interlude can be turned into a psychologically perilous encounter for both sides.
I lay much of this at the feet of television news channels, particularly MSNBC and Fox, which disseminate these attitudes. He watched both, as it turned out, but preferred one over the other. If you watch and listen to these channels carefully, you will notice that many of the voices are the voices of bullies. They are loud and aggressive, they admit no possibility of error and they go on-and-on-and-on, one rant after another. This is disgraceful stuff and a disservice to the country. We would all be wise to turn them off and look for better evidence of what President Obama, Governor Romney and other candidates for office believe. On C-Span, for example, we can listen to the candidates in their own voices.
But the occasion for this submission is to remark that these unpleasant attitudes are increasingly invading the columns of this newspaper. Take for example, the bluster of a Sept. 4 “As I See It” column by a Lowell public school teacher. Imagine the complexities that are ignored in the statement that one of “The consequences of re-election” will be that “The country’s deficit will continue to increase at least one trillion dollars per year.” This is an unforgivable assertion because it is so lazy. Where is the evidence, where are the details, what supports this bald assertion? Why won’t it grow by two trillion, 500 billion, 100 million? If we pull out of Afghanistan and raise taxes, will the deficit go down? What if sequestration takes effect at the end of year and the war is ended? Should we trade off between increasing the deficit and reducing unemployment, and are these linked? Would the result be any different if Governor Romney is elected? How do you know? There are no less that 12 such silly statements in that column. In case you think this is an exceptional example from an otherwise exemplary outlet, I call your attention to similar columns that appear on a continuous basis by a former business manager who continues to predict that the political sky is falling without offering much in the way of evidence.
Among the elements of rational dialogue, which are largely missing in these writings, are facts cited in support of the writer’s position, explanations which recognize other arguments and respond to them, and a tone which is reasonable and open to dialogue, not violent and determined to close down the opposition. The editors of this journal would do its readers a service if they reviewed the contributions to their pages more carefully so that all points of view are printed, but unsupported ravings, which are ultimately abusive and insult the readers’ intelligence, are omitted.
John Carroll lives in Newburyport.