Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jon Stewart, Sarah Palin, Judith Warner, and the Civility Gap

Another Wednesday, another opportunity to tell you about how Husband and I spend many evenings - side by side on the couch, each with a laptop, paying half-attention to a days old episode of The Daily Show.  On the episode we watched last night (and we are quite behind), Stewart was mocking Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America, classically-trained violinist, and honors graduate of Stanford, for Googling the term "czar" on air and suggesting that she didn't know its meaning.  Carlson herself was Googling the word as part of a segment that called into question the potential connection between the Obama administration and undemocratic imperial states of the past.

As I found myself getting lost trying to find the point of the segment, I started to think about popular culture and the news media and really people in general, all of whom seem engaged in some sort of Kafkaesque criticism of each other.  The Daily Show makes fun of Fox News; Fox News makes fun of the Obama administration.  So much for reporting news; our news sources report on the other people supposedly reporting the news.  There is occasionally some thoughtful critique, but much of it is sound and fury - signifying nothing because no one's listening anymore.

How many Daily Show viewers, I wondered, spend time talking to, really engaging with Fox News viewers?

And then it occurred to me: I bet I do.

And I hit upon yet another thing I really value about blogging: I don't know much, if anything, about your politics or your religion, and yet we talk about some of the most important things out there.  I don't know if you love Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin or Al Gore or Dick Cheney, are a member of the NRA or NOW or both, but I don't really care.  Whatever labels you might use to define yourself if the Real World, I value your opinion and trust your advice here in this one.  At a time when it seems like so many people have stopped listening to each other, we are connecting more than ever.

And then, of course, I thought of Judith Warner.  (And, yes, you've got it right if you've surmised that Jon Stewart, blogging, and Judith Warner are oft on my mind.)

In her Thanksgiving post, Warner addressed these very issues of what she calls "civility, grace under pressure, and general human fellowship."  No fan of Sarah Palin, Warner nevertheless applauded her recent gracious overtures to her grandchild's father during her interview with Oprah Winfrey:
Asked by Winfrey whether her once-future son-in-law, Levi Johnston, who slimed Palin with gleeful malice in the October issue of Vanity Fair and is soon due to bare all in Playgirl, would be joining her family for Thanksgiving dinner, the former Alaska governor replied, “It’s lovely to think that he would ever even consider such a thing. … He is a part of the family, and you want to bring him into the fold and kind of under your wing. And he needs that, too, Oprah. I think he needs to know that he is loved and he has the most beautiful child and this can all work out for good.”
You may be wondering how I could possibly be taken in by such obviously scripted political posturing.
But the fact is, Palin’s verbal gesture of graciousness surprised me. And the fact that it struck me as newsworthy and stayed in my mind long afterward speaks volumes about the general level of ambient aggression, thinly-veiled hostility and sheer nastiness that’s circulating — and parading, very often, as justified righteous indignation — in our society right now.
From Warner's examples of road ragers and "etiquette vigilantes" who publicly embarrass those who fail to say "thank you," to my own musings on the back-and-forth of political news television, it seems like many people now see things in absolutes, throwing out the baby because the bath water voted Republican.

But here we are, bridging the civility gap every day.  Making a choice to rise above the hostility that dominates so much communication these days.  Opting to engage with each other and with issues that matter.  I am proud of us.

Now imagine what we could do for health care reform.

In your Real Life, how openly (and open-mindedly) do you communicate with those whose political or religious views are different from your own? 


  1. As a former history teacher, I would pride myself on my students not knowing my political affiliation at the end of a course (my dad taught me this was important.) I told them I would respect any opinion they had as long as they expressed it with respect and backed it with evidence. Imagine.

    And, my father-in-law is a devout FOX News fan. We love each other dearly, but I find myself spouting Jon Stewart-isms at him while he shoots off Bill O'Reilly's at me. And then we eat pie. Or whatever.

    Good post.

  2. I have taken the risk of exposing my very leftists views lately to a few mommy friends, because I have learned that I need to. Turns out my regular attendance at Gay Pride events and various protests makes some other parents VERY uncomfortable.

    In one case: I have a 12 year old Mothers Helper on the weekends - a darling of a girl. I know she attends a Christian School and that her whole life if focused on religion, and babysitting. The first day she was working for me I planned to attend a gift wrapping booth to raise funds for the local National Organization for Women Chapter. She would help with my baby twins while I wrapped gifts and answered questions. So, I called her Mom to tell her about it. We had an AMAZING conversation. She is pro-life, I am pro-choice. I told her that her daughter would be exposed to a very diverse group of people if she spent time with me, including Athiests. I promised not to push my views on her, but said I would not be able to hide them. Her Mom was graceful and kind and has been a friend to me for years since this conversation. She even somehow abides being my facebook friend, which has got to be challenging since I spew political and social opinions every day.

    I had another experience that wasn't so positive when I did not make it clear to a parent that I would be attending Gay Pride with their 12 year old Daughter. That brought on a late night hateful phone call from the parent and nearly ended the families' relationship.

    Great post - sorry to be so long winded!

    By the way, the Kitchen Witch sent me...bless her soul! She knows me so well. Love the blog.

  3. BloginSong! Hi, gorgeous! And how *very* like you to call that babysitter's mother and be able to have an adult, honest and civilized discussion.

    My parent's hate my liberal views. I don't discuss politics or religion with them, because it's like hitting a stone barricade.

    I don't really talk politics or religion with my friends either...maybe because I'm betting they feel the same way I do.

    But civility in all things--THAT is a wonderful goal.

  4. I always try to engage with civility, but tend not to engage in political discussions. My ex and I were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Every time I opened my mouth, it turned into a great deal of unpleasantness. And 8 years later, I still don't discuss politics, generally.

    I guess that's conditioning, hmm?

  5. I don't engage much at all on political or other controversial topics in my circles because I'm a weakling! I hate controversy and hate getting into debates with people with much stronger views than I have. I'd rather talk to those who i know agree with my thoughts or talk about thing that aren't controversial. However, I will engage with people with differing opinions by asking them TONS of questions... without telling them my views at all.

    Probably not a healthy way to be but it keeps me "safe".

  6. Ali - You and I have a lot in common. Former history teachers who tried to keep politics out of the classroom and now resolve political arguments with relatives over food. I'd love to debrief the transition from teaching to staying at home. Drop me a line some time: mothereseblog [at] gmail [dot] com

    BlogInSong - Welcome and thanks for your comment.

    It sounds like you are pretty open about your political leanings in your Real Life as well as your online one.

    I tend to be more like Kitch, BLW, and Becca - tight-lipped and generally worried about stirring up conflict. But I'm concerned that we've gotten to a point in our societal discourse where disagreement automatically leads to conflict. I'm very glad of your example of talking to your mother's helper's mother (that sounds like the name of a cocktail!) - proof positive that the lines of communication haven't completely closed.

    I hope you'll visit again soon!

  7. What a great topic, Kristen! Thanks for constantly keeping my brain from atrophying!

    Probably because I grew up fighting with six sisters in a huge cat fight/brawl every day, I just can't stand to get in big arguments with people, but I also refuse, on a personal basis, to lie about who I am. That would pretty much be a Jewish liberal Democrat Feminist - is that enough labels? I'm friends with people who are very different from me politically though, in the present climate, some friendships have wavered. If someone very seriously believes that our President is the AntiChrist, then, really, that friendship has got to go. I can only go so far.

  8. I hunger for conversations with people whose views are different than mine. Sure many of my friends share my same philosophies in faith, politics and the like. But my friends who don't share my views have taught me so much. I am rooted enough in what I believe to not feel challenged by conversation that is different.

    I'm finding that visiting other blogs really expands my world.

  9. Yes - I try to be open minded. But I do strongly believe in equality for all and in my progressive ideals. I just don't think its possible for everyone to believe what I do! Its so great to read how different women approach this issue - as my Dad says "It Takes All Kinds!"

  10. Hi Kristen. Interesting topic for me. I live in a very comfortable bubble of liberal progressives. But that means I don't really even encounter conservatives on a daily basis, which doesn't do too much for working towards understanding on the other side of the issues. I guess I've had 'conversations' on facebook with old friends and acquaintances who differ politically. But that was only after they responded to my posts, which I didn't even consider might strike up a backlash. (I forget that not everyone agrees with me sometimes...)

    Anyway, just wanted to say great post, and I agree with you about the blogging community. Although, I do find myself veering away from writing about health care because I don't want to alienate my readers, once I started to pick up on the idea that some of them may be quite different from me, politically.


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