As our nation celebrates its 242nd birthday, all of us living in this great country should remember that we are part of the United States. The brave people who signed the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July in 1776 would likely be appalled by the lack of decorum in public discourse these many years later. After all, their goal was to unite the people of the 13 colonies for the greater good and not to divide them into warring camps.
There are strong disagreements on important public policy issues today, but personally attacking an opponent does nothing to resolve those issues. Rather than demonizing the other side, it is more effective to point out the merits of our position, as well as any flaws in the opponent’s position. If you start out by proclaiming that the opponent is an ass or crook, you obscure your own argument on the merits. That not only inflames the debate, but often results in the opponent just digging in harder.
I think the president’s policy of separating asylum seekers from their children was and is extremely ill advised for a number of reasons. The argument should focus on the reasons for opposing the policy, not by comparing the policy to Nazi concentration camps. Some of the president’s supporters might be inclined to agree on the policy issue, if the argument is confined to the merits.
The president did not invent coarse and destructive public commentary but he has certainly perfected the technique. That does not mean that the rest of us should follow the example. Let’s remember that we were given the precious legacy in the Preamble to the Constitution of forming “a more perfect union.”
Public discourse is not well served by statements that demean those with whom we disagree. Congressman Labrador’s recent contribution to the family separation debate is a prime example. On June 21, he is reported to have said that Democrats “don’t really care about the families. They want to have no enforcement of immigration law.” He knows this is not the truth. His statement misrepresents the different approaches to immigration that other members of Congress are promoting.
Instead of vilifying those with whom we disagree, perhaps we might consider an approach that caught my attention in Bible study more than 60 years ago. Proverbs 25:21-22 says, in part: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat ... for you will heap coals of fire on his head.” At the time, I could picture dumping a bunch of burning embers on somebody’s head. But, I think it means that if somebody is being a butt, treat them kindly and they may relent under the embarrassment. It is a variation on the you-can-draw-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar theme.
The Fourth of July is a perfect time to think of how lucky we are to live in a country where we have unprecedented freedom and opportunity. Why spoil it with hateful acts and words against our fellow Americans? We can disagree on important issues without being disagreeable. Let’s all have a happy and reflective Fourth.
Jim Jones is a former attorney general and chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.