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Why Does It Have to Get Personal?

Why Does It Have to Get Personal?

Political dialogue should focus on explicating one’s own ostensibly superior beliefs.

Were Charles Dickens describing the state of today’s political punditry, he might have once again written: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Who can recall when three different stories or scandals were breaking all at the same time, any one of which could cost the U.S. President his job? Hence, for those who speak and write about these issues, it is the absolute best of times. But sadly, the disrespect and vindictive personal smears emanating from both sides of the political spectrum appear to have hit a new all-time low. To illustrate, almost all of the advertising during the previous presidential election entailed trashing the other candidate rather than promoting anybody’s own position. The level of mean-spiritedness was positively vulgar.

Political dialogue should focus on explicating one’s own ostensibly superior beliefs. Why, when it comes to politics, does it so often get personal? Someone who chooses to buy a Chevy instead of a Ford doesn’t feel the need to hate the management and employees at Ford and all those who buy their cars. Yet, supporting one political ideology so often goes together with an attitude of rancor toward those on the other side and their views.

US President Barack Obama greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as the two contenders arrive on stage for the third and final presidential debate October 22, 2012 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images) 

There are numerous reasons for why political views should not get personal and nasty. For the earth we populate to be civilized, people must be able to view their differences as part of the human experience and live together civilly and respectfully. Once this ethic is disregarded, financial or even physical aggression against those with differing views may eventually be rationalized as well. (Think of the current IRS scandal and what it bodes for the future.)

Also consider that all people have something worthwhile that can be taught to others. Completely rejecting all thinking coming from those of differing political ideas deprives one of a great deal of “smarts.” It also creates thought-limiting mental rigidity. This insight is reflected in a quote from the Talmud (the basic book of Traditional Judaism), “Who is wise - he who learns from all people.”

My recent book, Uncommon Sense, applies ancient Talmud thinking to modern politics. One of its chapters explores how people who profess to be liberal and open-minded can at the same time be extremely closed minded toward people and ideas that are not liberal.

“The Talmud praises the trait of being open minded to other perspectives and opinions. It describes the great rabbis of that era who remained friendly and respectful toward each other, notwithstanding their sharp disagreements on many topics. This was because their disputes were not at all personal. Rather, their only quest was for truth. The Talmud adds that they personified the biblical words, ‘They loved peace and truth’ (Zachariah 8-19).”

I would like to further explain the implications of the biblical phrase, “They loved peace and truth.” The great virtues of peace and truth are, in fact, somewhat incompatible and mutually exclusive. A true lover of peace will tend to shy away from confrontation, for it disturbs the peace. He might therefore avoid criticizing what is improper. Conversely, one who is a purist when it comes to truth will often end up doing battle with those whose conduct is condemnable. Accordingly, people will often have to choose in their lives between truth OR peace. They may elect to mostly ignore the wrongdoing surrounding them so they can live in harmony with others. Alternatively, they may become outspoken proponents of principle, a result of which will be an existence replete with strife.

The biblical ideal is for people to simultaneously pursue BOTH peace and truth – and with equal vigor. This can be accomplished when explaining one’s beliefs entails just that, explaining one’s beliefs rather than primarily focusing on denouncing others and their views.

True democracy thrives when ideas are strongly advocated but with open minds, and when political dialogue is characterized by mutual respect rather than animosity and ego-gratification. When the U.S. Constitution was being formulated, radically different ideas were proposed, but throughout it all, there was a prevailing attitude of deference toward others and all opposing views. This begat the foundation for a country whose enduring characteristic has been “liberty and justice for all!”


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