Debate and Hate

Coincidences over the past few weeks have made me think a lot about civility.  A colleague and I were asked to lead an after-play discussion on that topic at the Phoenix Theater; we disagree politically, but have often commiserated about the increasingly toxic tone of public argumentation.  I later participated on a panel at Butler University on the same subject.

And then there was the appalling conduct of the anti-healthcare Tea Party demonstrators in Washington who greeted Andre Carson and John Lewis with the “N” word, called Barney Frank a “faggot” and actually spit on other Representatives.

Locally, we’ve had another eruption of nastiness aimed at people who work at Planned Parenthood. Not satisfied with picketing the organization’s clinics, these protestors have taken to disrupting residential neighborhoods by screaming obscenities and threats at the homes of Planned Parenthood staff members and volunteers.

Now, I would be the last person to deny these folks their First Amendment right to express their opinions, and to do so in ways that I personally find repulsive.  But I can’t help but wonder what these angry and hostile people think they accomplish with such behaviors.

Take the attacks on Planned Parenthood. I understand being opposed to reproductive rights for women (and let me hasten to say that most opponents of abortion rights do not engage in these tactics), but Planned Parenthood is primarily about women’s health, not abortion. It provides cancer screenings, testing and treatment for STD’s, along with contraceptive advice and education. (In fact, nearly 95% of Planned Parenthood’s work is focused on pregnancy prevention; ironically, that means that no organization does more to reduce the actual incidence of abortion.)

Do the people screaming all night in front of the homes of Planned Parenthood staff members and volunteers really believe that Indiana would be a better place for women and children and families if the organization stopped serving its nearly 90,000 mostly low-income patients with pap tests and birth control and treatment for STDs?  Do they really think any other provider would fill that void? Or are they simply willing to sacrifice women’s health in order to get their way? 

For that matter, do they really think these tactics will help them get their way? Do they think this is how you persuade other people of the merits of your position?  

I sometimes have to remind myself that we live in uncertain and anxiety-filled times; a certain amount of irrational behavior is understandable, if unhelpful. I do recognize that a very tiny percentage of Americans actually engage in these despicable behaviors. My concern is that these expressions of bile are doing real damage to our ability to engage in genuine debate.

While few partisans are spitting on elected officials or threatening local volunteers, many more are engaging in fact-challenged arguments and distortions in an effort to win political points. Health insurance reform will not allow government to euthanize granny. Planned Parenthood is not encouraging young women to abort.

It’s time to get a grip.


  1. One of those protests against Planned Parenthood takes place regularly outside my front door against one of my neighbors – outrageous and dangerous folks conducting it. Very scary.

  2. Re your “Get a Grip on Nasty Rhetoric” (Indy Star March 29, 2010)

    False charges and hatred are certainly to be disliked.

    For example, in an effort to demonize millions of Americans who believe in more conservative values, left wing radical politicians have been dealing out a campaign of hateful rhetoric against any individual or group of individuals not agreeing with the left agenda.

    As the ‘tea party’ movement has grown, so has the rhetoric directed against them. But rhetoric is one thing . . . lying against them is another. Recently, a charge was made by a few members of Congress that ‘tea party’ members spat on them and issued the ‘N’ word against some. This was later shown to be at best, a fanciful story since none of the many members of the press with open mikes, and many news people with video cameras on the scene at the site of the alleged vulgarities . . . detected any such action on the part of the very vocal bystanders.

    The supposed incidents drew immediate protests from the media, but within a day, after no such happenings were shown to be true, the story was buried. No major disclaimer was made by anyone in the media. And those who were the supposed victims of the alleged vulgarities became very quiet . . . at least for now. But the story will continue to fester in the minds of many who grasp at an opportunity to vilify their opponents.

    As for vulgarities and demonstrations in the neighborhoods of those who work for Planned Parenthood operations . . . those demonstrators should be filmed and identified for the public. Those demonstrators are people who act in a manner that does a disservice to those of us who know that late term abortion of babies is a horrifying and painful killing of human beings.

    Note that I do not offer support for the supposed Christian milita gang that wanted to take down our government (by force) nor do I support the rights of religious kooks who demonstrate at the funerals of Americans who have died in support of our country against foreign enemies. But I am an American who believes in fiscal responsibility (government and personal); respects and obeys the laws of our land; and believes that our Congress should legislate and our Supreme Court should render decisions based on the words of the Constitution and the laws that have been passed that have amended that Constitution.

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