I wish to write concerning Rich Elfers’ Sept. 2 opinion column, “The Definition of a Family”. This article showcases a pervasive problem in our society’s political discourse. Mr. Elfers describes divergent views between Democrats and Republicans regarding sensitive social issues. After laying out his definition of family, Mr. Elfers proceeds to impose his own definition on two large, and highly generalized groups of people, namely “Republicans” and “Democrats.” Now I can guess to which group Mr. Elfers identifies (apart from reading his other articles) because he ascribes laudable attributes and motivations to his own in-group. On the other hand, he ascribes cynical and even degenerate motives to his so defined “Republicans.” He sets forth his definitions upfront, “Democrats are inclusive, while Republicans tend to be more exclusive.” This is not a statement of observable fact or policy, but rather is a personal value judgement. He further states in his column that, “Democrats want to include everybody as part of the American Family … while Republicans tend to view immigrants as aliens.” The language itself highlights that this is a statement of thoughts, intents and motives, not objective fact.
Throughout his column, Mr. Elfers makes assertions about the thoughts, views, and/or motives of an “other” that are not based on fact or any actual policy proposal. His statements are a personal interpretation, based on how he himself thinks or feels about the opposing group’s policy or social view. Some call this setting up a “straw-man,” others call it “projection,” but I just call it intellectually dishonest. It is easy to paint a caricature of someone else’s views, and thereby impose perceived motives on them which oppose your own. By doing so, you may be able to dismiss their arguments with facility but you haven’t won a battle, you haven’t even proven your own point. You have only confronted your own projection, or stereotype, of your opposition.
This practice has become the norm in our society. Politicians of every party and ideology engage in this mud-slinging. Media does the same thing, whether it be when writing a sitcom or reporting the news. The result is the polarization that we see today across our nation. Everyone just talks past each other and each fails to see the other as anything more than the caricature that has been portrayed. When a debate or argument is had with that caricature rather than letting people speak for themselves, the result is never anything productive for anyone. Continuation of this behavior will only lead to more political polarization and tribalism. Character assaults will never win anyone over to your cause and will never moderate our political discourse.
My Father used to tell our family that we could overcome any difficulty if we were just willing to talk. To borrow Mr. Elfers’ own metaphor; if we are to truly be one American Family, we all need to be willing to talk things out and let our neighbors speak for themselves.