Angry Tone Brings More of Same
What if we could prove that talk radio and Fox News were responsible for most of the hateful political rhetoric that permeates our society?
What if Jared Loughner turned out to be a faithful Limbaugh disciple and his recent rampage were attributable to what he heard on Rush Radio? Would that make the murders in Tucson the fault of conservative pundits?
It would not. I haven’t heard Limbaugh or a Fox News commentator or even Sarah Palin say anything that’s not protected by the First Amendment. They’re entitled to their opinions, although the tone of those opinions could be less emphatic.
No, the fault is in ourselves, and in our unwillingness to weigh various points of view.
Last spring, a local businessman asked me to read a long letter he’d written to Sen. Kay Hagan detailing her many liberal shortcomings and emphatically taking her to task for all sorts of transgressions, imagined and otherwise.
As I read the letter, it occurred to me that I’d heard the words and tone of voice before — the night before, in fact. I’d watched Fox News the previous evening, and I could hear Sean Hannity’s specific language (he wasn’t attacking Hagan but liberals in general) and his angry tone in the letter I was reading.
“You heard this on Fox News, didn’t you?” I asked the letter writer.
“Yeah, I did,” he said.
I wasn’t surprised by this admission. I taught college English for more than 30 years, and I often received freshman essays that repeated the arguments and incorporated the tone — especially the tone — of conservative commentators.
When I read such an essay, I didn’t take the student to task for faulty logic; I took him to task for not doing his own thinking. I would calmly explain that what I wanted was his reasoned opinion on the topic and not the opinion of someone whose point of view he happened to overhear.
A one-sided argument will suffice when writing or speaking to persuade: Here’s what I believe and this is why I believe it — first, second, third, fourth, and so on. But a better method of persuading is to investigate the topic from both or multiple points of views: Here’s what this side believes and here’s what the other side believes and after examining both arguments, here’s what I believe and why.
The writer of the argument would then appear to be fair and logical — a reasonable human being espousing a reasonable opinion.
I’d have the student watch an old video of a debate between American atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare and conservative William F. Buckley Jr. on the subject of prayer in the public schools. O’Hare began her argument with a litany of reasons for not allowing public prayer. When she concluded her tirade, Buckley calmly ran through O’Hare’s arguments, agreeing occasionally — “I believe you’re right about this” — and then refuting most of her points while calmly and logically explaining why he was in the right.
At the time of the debate, the Supreme Court had already ruled on prayer in the public schools and the topic was moot, but Buckley came across as reasonable and fair-minded — it was difficult not to agree with him. What sane person would side with the politically rabid O’Hare?
“Do you see how Buckley framed his argument?” I’d ask the student. “Now go back to your computer, research all the points of view and rewrite your argument using Buckley’s technique.”
As with everything in education, sometimes this approach worked, sometimes it didn’t. But when it did succeed, the student was likely to have written a more persuasive argument — and it almost always softened the tone of the essay.
Why has our national debate grown more acerbic in recent years? It’s not because our political differences have grown more pronounced — Americans have always been at loggerheads with one another — but because we don’t have the time or inclination to weigh both sides of the argument, and when arguing from only one point of view, our tone is more likely to be shrill and threatening.
And you can be sure of this: When addressing someone in an angry or sarcastic tone, you can expect the same in return.
Stephen Smith’s “A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths” is available at The Country Bookshop. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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