How to disagree

Posted 9/9/09

The brouhaha over President Barack Obama’s address to school children on Tuesday is another disturbing sign that we’re just not very good at …

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How to disagree


The brouhaha over President Barack Obama’s address to school children on Tuesday is another disturbing sign that we’re just not very good at disagreeing anymore.

By we, I’m not talking just about the country in general. The flap over this speech is a national story, but Colorado is one of the states at the forefront of that story. Specifically, the southern suburbs of Denver are at the forefront of Colorado’s story. When I say we, I’m talking about people in this community.

Parents who were afraid that their children will be exposed to what they see as this president’s socialist agenda are looking for ways to take their children out of school or keep them from watching the address.

Local school districts felt enough pressure about this issue to address it in blanket fashion on the home pages on their Web sites. Douglas County Schools had a downloadable opt-out form on the district’s Web site before Tuesday’s speech. Littleton Public Schools didn’t have the form, but made it clear that parents could opt their children out of hearing the speech. Denver Public Schools did something similar.

It’s not the school districts’ response to this that bugs me, nor is it necessarily the idea that parents are taking their kids out of school to not participate in something they disagree with.

What bugs me is that people are drawing a very hard line on an issue as harmless as a presidential address. Why? Because they disagree with him about matters that weren’t the focus of the speech. This reaction speaks volumes about our polarized existence, which is something that has worried me for some time.

More and more, intelligent disagreement is being replaced by ideological intolerance. Rather than hear out the other side or simply agreeing to disagree on certain things, people seem more inclined to disassociate themselves from people with opposing views altogether.

If that’s the code of conduct for disagreement these days, we’re in big trouble. We’re destined for a future of fragmented groups of people who only allow problems to fester without ever moving forward.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with then state Sen. Steve Ward that illustrates how disagreement should work.

At the time, Ward was fresh off a series of public forums he did with Joe Rice, a fellow legislator serving in the state House. Both are military veterans who had served in Iraq and the forums were a chance for them to share their experiences with their constituents.

What’s interesting about this speaking duo is that Ward is about as conservative a Republican as you’ll find in these parts, which is saying a lot. Rice, on the other hand, is an up-and-comer in the state’s Democratic Party.

I remarked on the bipartisan nature of these speaking engagements and Ward said something very interesting about partisan divisions.

“They need to build more parks,” he said of the partisan political characters on the national scene.

He was referring to a time when he and Rice served on the city council in Glendale, a level of government that is about solving problems and providing services. Political ideologies simply weren’t a concern when a city council was looking for money to build a park.

Does Ward agree with Rice very often? I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. Did that keep him from working with him? No.

The late author and Civil War historian Shelby Foote put it another way. He said, “[Americans] like to think of ourselves as uncompromising, but our true genius is for compromise. Our country was founded on it, our whole system of government is based on it.”

We shouldn’t lose sight of that. We shouldn’t allow disagreements to force us back into ideological silos and bring a stop to all discussion and progress. That leads us nowhere.

Jeremy Bangs is the managing editor of Colorado Community Newspapers.


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