When I was in high school in Detroit in the mid- to late 1960s, we used to engage in the common practice of “capping,” which involved attempts to publicly humiliate your opponent with mean-spirited verbiage.
I usually tried to avoid what I thought was a silly practice, but I remember one day being unable to resist the temptation to fire back when one of my classmates began talking about my shirt. He said, “That shirt looks like it’s been through World War I, World War II, World War III and World War IV.” I fired back a short but highly effective quip that made him a laughingstock. I simply said, “And your momma wore it.”
Interestingly enough, after my verbal victory, that adolescent group, including the victim, became much more accepting of me, and it felt good to have gained their approval, even though I was sure that my value system was at odds with theirs. I began to socialize with these fellows, and there was a noticeable change for the worse in the way that I treated others. In retrospect, I am particularly ashamed of joining in episodes of heaping hideous verbal abuse on other targeted classmates, who were not guilty of anything other than not fitting in.
Unfortunately, this type of infantile adolescent behavior is still quite prevalent in our current political environment. Instead of “capping” their opponents, many in the political class engage in hyperbolic demagoguery in an attempt to demonize those who disagree with them. This is not surprising, because in his book “Rules For Radicals,” Saul Alinsky, the original radical community organizer and societal change agent, says you should never have a rational discussion with your opponent. Doing so would humanize him, and your goal is to demonize him. With this tactic, he states that you can incur your opponent’s wrath, causing him to respond angrily, and in many cases, irrationally, which then provides an opportunity to use that irrational response against him.
This is an especially useful tactic when you have the media on your side. The adolescent “capping” episodes seldom occurred between just two individuals, but were purposely put on glorious display in the company of an appreciative audience. Similarly, divisive politicians seem energized by microphones and cameras, and eagerly accuse their opponents of ridiculous things, such as wanting elderly people to die, children to starve or our nation to fail. In their heart of hearts, they know that their opponents want no such things, but their desire to score political points with an audience that wishes to believe negative things about others overwhelms the rule of integrity.
Last week, I was engaged in a dinner conversation with a number of prominent individuals, including a very high official of the current administration. I was talking about the fact that we are severely compromising the future of our progeny by relentlessly increasing our national debt. He proudly proclaimed that the rate of debt accumulation was slowing down and, therefore, there was no cause for alarm. I stated that if a balloon was overinflated and in danger of rupturing, putting just a little more air into it, as opposed to a lot more air, would have the same disastrous results.
He did not have a comeback for that argument, but I suspect that if you had given him a microphone and an adoring audience, he would have accused me of being critical and wanting the policies of the current administration to fail. I suspect the verbiage, however, would have been more colorful in an attempt to evoke an emotional response from the audience. There is a big difference between pointing out defects in the policies of an opponent in a thoughtful and rational manner, and engaging in wanton prevarication to stoke the fires of emotion.
There is nothing wrong with disagreement. In fact, I am very fond of saying that if two people agree about everything, one of them is not necessary. Disagreement should not make people into enemies, especially if they are willing to discuss their differences rationally, rather than trying to demonize each other. All sides are guilty of this behavior, and we could all benefit from a dose of maturity and kindness. Instead of engaging in partisan bickering, try the following exercise for a week:
• Speak to people you normally walk by and ignore.
• Let someone else go first.
• Help someone who is struggling.
• Comfort someone who is distressed.
• Give someone a couple of bucks who came up short at the checkout counter.
• If you can afford it, give a hardworking individual in the service sector a generous tip.
• Ignore those who only criticize and attack, and instead, concentrate on solving problems.
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.” See how you feel after that one week has passed, and I suspect many of us may want to continue leading positive and constructive lives.
Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.