How to do politics in an uncivil time

Poster: if you vote Republican I'll shoot this dog

Photo: bobster855 via Flickr.

As the US mid-term elections approach, examples of politicians and activists behaving badly abound. Most recently, the lefty activist group MoveOn.org sent around a video showing supporters of Republican senate candidate Rand Paul manhandling Lauren Valle, a 23-year-old activist.

Valle tried to approach Paul as he was entering the venue for the Kentucky senatorial debate on Monday night. Part of MoveOn.org’s RepubliCorp campaign of crowd-sourced publicity stunts to draw attention to corporate contributions to the GOP, Valle was trying to present Paul with a fake employee-of-the-month award.

The video, with the incendiary title “Tea Party THUGS Attack Progressive Activist,” showed Paul campaign volunteers first ripping off Valle’s blond fright wig and then forcing her down to the pavement.

At the end of the video, one Paul staffer, Tim Proffitt, provided the foot stomp that has become the incident’s signature Google keyword, stomping on Valle’s shoulder, and then on her head.

Discussion on the event has been heated, with people on each side accusing those on the other of incivility.

So what better time for a bit of training in civility from that Czar of Calm and Commodore of Cool, the Transition movement’s Rob Hopkins. His Transition Culture email today, “Respectful Communication,” was a welcome break from the parade of violent buffonery that has come to dominate the election news. Part of Hopkins’s Ingredients of Transition series, the post is valuable to anyone who cares about peak oil, climate change, and positive responses, whether they’re involved in Transition or not.

While recognizing that sometimes you do have to be a bit thrashy to get your point across when you’re going up against the status quo, Hopkins urges that conflict not become the norm and calls for respectful communication:

As much as anything, the practice of respectful communication is about being mindful. Mindful of trying to understand the views of your opponents. Mindful of remaining open to persuasion, not attaching rigidly to the rightness of your argument. Mindful of approaching others with courtesy and clarity. It is an openness to the possibility that the person you are talking to might actually have something interesting or useful to say.

Note, Hopkins isn’t saying that we should simply act more civilly towards others, particularly those who we might disagree with. He’s really saying that we should be genuinely open to their ideas. Who knows, they might be right about some things, too?

Now, the stomping incident might not have been one of those times where people shared enough agreement on basic issue to be able to listen respectfully to each other. It was clearly a situation where at least intellectual conflict was built in, and the activist stunt was not designed to be unconfrontational, however innocent the “employee-of-the-month award” seems on the face of it. Valle was there to disrupt.

But in partisan politics, or say, while arguing with people who deny climate science, even if we have to grit our teeth, can’t we at least keep our fists in our pockets?

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