As people grow up, their views will be challenged. This may come from a book, a movie, or a conversation with friends. When this occurs, there are initially three responses: either the person will say nothing, give in, or lash out. In an ideal world, these responses will eventually give way to that of courtesy and respect. By the time they mature, people should be able to argue with each other with civility rather than with hostility.
Unfortunately, the United States Congress proves that this ideal world does not exist.
This year, on Valentine’s Day, Republicans in the Senate blocked Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, was chosen for his knowledge of foreign affairs and national security. Many Republicans opposed his nomination due to perceptions that he was anti-Israel and weak against Iran. Some Democrats opposed Hagel due to a statement he made 15 years ago against homosexuality. Regardless of the reasons for opposition, the move was historic. There has never been a case previously where a president-elect’s cabinet nomination was filibustered. Preventing the nomination of Chuck Hagel was, in the words of Harry Reid (D-NV), “unprecedented”, an example where the GOP’s desire for obstructionism trumped the desire for a functioning government. On February 26th, Hagel’s nomination was officially confirmed, but the damage had been done.
Yet this problem is not new. Ever since Obama was elected in 2008, bipartisanship has been in decline. The Affordable Care Act passed with no Republican votes. Republicans halted Debt Ceiling negotiations in 2011, which led to the downgrade of the US Credit Rating. On the Democrat side, Republicans were prevented from voting on any amendments to Senate bills. Obama vetoed the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles economic plan due to his opposition to cuts in entitlements and pressure from the left wing of his party.
Just as the Republicans are relentless against tax increases, the Democrats are relentless against entitlement cuts. Due to these differences, the fiscal cliff, a combination of spending cuts and tax increases designed to force Congress to reform the economy, wasn’t resolved until a day after the deadline. Even then, the deal only dealt with taxes; the debt ceiling and budget cuts were delayed. If history were the judge, a deal which resolves all of these problems is unlikely. Civil disagreement has been replaced by name-calling, demonization, and a blatant disregard for reality. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) “immature and irresponsible”. Former Rep. Allen West (R-FL) accused 81 members of the Democratic Party of being communists.
But is Congress just being Congress, or is there something deeper going on here? In one sense, people are not that different from Congress. America has become more polarized in both ideology and rhetoric. If you are a fiscal conservative, fiscal liberals are socialists, tyrants, and enemies of freedom. If you support same-sex marriage, opponents are bigoted, archaic, and stupid. If you oppose abortion, supporters are murderers, akin to Hitler and Stalin. Canada seems to have caught this disease. In January, a free speech wall in Carleton University was torn down hours after it was put up by a seventh year human rights activist student. His reason? Somebody scrawled “Traditional marriage is awesome.” That apparently constituted an act of violence against the gay community. We have been so accustomed to our own views that we fail to understand the views of others. George Gordon Byron, an English poet once said “Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.” Many of us are slaves – slaves to our own ideology, devoid of reason and understanding for the other side.
As students, we have a choice to make. We can continue with our old habits, trapped in the prison of ideological intolerance. Or we can transcend our culture and act to others like they ought to be treated. There is no harm in holding an opinion. But there is harm in dismissing others because of an opinion. All ideas deserve a place in the public square. We should long for an era anyone can express any opinion without the fear of ridicule, where good ideas are added to discourse and bad ideas are rejected because of facts rather than emotion. This world is possible, but only if we change ourselves.
Congress may not be doing that, but that shouldn’t stop us.