Parts of Speech

Parts of SpeechFacebook is such a wonderful laboratory for human interaction. We share photos, misspelled memes and inane cat videos, but we also share a lot of our opinions in a fairly low-risk environment. I’ve been “unfriended” before, mostly because of differences over religion. I’d like
to pretend that I didn’t care, but I did. It hurt. However, I figure that anyone who would “unfriend” me at the touch of a button probably never actually “friended” me in the real world.

Most people, in my experience, have similar goals. We want a better world, and we expect our fellow Earthlings to contribute to making a better world right alongside us. If we have kids, then we worry about the world that we’re leaving to them. We’re afraid of what we can’t control. We want to be remembered as good and decent people who, by our presence, improved the lives of others. We may differ on how best to reach these ends, but we ultimately want the same things.

In 1993, I spent my summer in Rochester, New York, at the Eastman School of Music. I remember a professor telling the story of a fellow musician who used to ask questions like, “Are you an oboe? Are you a flute?” In her wisdom, she explained that it was fine to identify yourself as being devoted to an instrument, but it was better to identify as a whole person. In other words, you’re an oboe player, not an oboe. You need a well-rounded sense of self.

I decided this week to stop using certain words as nouns and to start using them as adjectives. Two of those words are “liberal” and “conservative.” I can say either that someone is a liberal, or I can say someone is a liberal person or a person with liberal views. I’ve decided that I prefer the latter ways because in those phrasings, I’m acknowledging the existence of a person. When our adversaries stop being people to us, we become too comfortable dehumanizing those who disagree with us. For example, if you call yourself “believer” and identify your friend as “unbeliever,” then you may decide that “unfriending” the unbeliever is a stance for your principles. It’s not seen for what it is: a small, mean gesture revealing the closed nature of your own mind and heart.

When I look at my news feed and even my paper address book, I see a roster of people who have many opinions that are different from mine. Sometimes, I argue with them, either from a defensive posture or because I’m jones-ing for a sparring match, but there isn’t a name on my friends list or in my address book that I would choose to eliminate. When friends need me or when we’re laughing together, political and religious disagreements melt away. I’ll cancel out their votes at the ballot machine as often as I can, but I won’t cancel our friendship.

If you’re my friend, post your pro-Koch brothers editorials. Post your pro-NRA memes. Fill my news feed with Dave Ramsey quotes. Feel free to post about the hope that you find from your faith. You may almost make my unbelieving feminist pinkie commie head explode, but as long as my liberal skull stays intact, then you and I will always be friends.

I’m going to continue reflecting on which nouns I can transition to adjectives in my own conversation. A person isn’t a liberal or a conservative any more than he’s an oboe.


Healthcare and Other Forms of Mortal Combat

Some of the most unpleasant arguments I’ve ever had with people have involved books. Many years ago, my old college roommate sent me an email warning that the book The Purpose Driven Life was evil. Now, I had read the book, and she had not. I didn’t think Rick Warren’s insights were particularly deep or life-changing, but I disagreed with her that Rick Warren was a minion of Satan. So I responded and essentially said, “Maybe you should read it before you make up your mind.” She hasn’t spoken to me in seven years…all over a stupid book.

I also got the silent treatment from a close relative once after I asked him to stop sending me anti-Obama emails. You know, the kind that said that President Obama was Muslim and that he wanted all women to wear burkas. The final straw was when he sent me a picture of Obama holding a book called The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. My relative said that the book was evidence that candidate Obama wanted America to ooze into decline. I said (because The Post-American World is an intelligent and thought-provoking book by a talented writer), “Maybe you should read the book so that you know what it’s actually about.” He wrote back that I had called him a stupid redneck…which I didn’t…and didn’t speak to me for about three months.

It’s so interesting that you can say things to people and that they hear something completely different from what you said. It’s also interesting how discussions about politics and religion rip the covers off of people’s worst thoughts and impulses. I made the mistake of posting about Obamacare on Facebook today. I knew my enthusiasm for healthcare reform might provoke people. Talk about walking into a virtual minefield. For the most part, the people in my circle acquitted themselves well. I read passionate and sensible defenses of Obamacare and equally well-reasoned arguments against the law.

And then there were other people. Some were friends, some were friends’ friends. Some people said things that were just kind of ignorant. A guy that I vaguely knew in high school posted something about universal healthcare being cheaper and easier in Norway because everyone rides a bike and eats healthy food and never has a health problem. Um, okay. Some people posted that they were moving to Canada…a country that has universal healthcare. Well, whatever, I told myself. I’ve said stupid things before. We’ve all made ignorant statements because we feel passionate about something.

On the other hand, some people really went where they shouldn’t have. One liberal friend of a friend said that another guy who called Obamacare “bondage” was making a racist statement, which I thought was unnecessary. Back to the Norway post, someone (I’m assuming a non-supporter of Obamacare) said that Norway would be a better place to live because they didn’t have “a certain element” while another poster said that Norway had “a lot of Muslims.” I don’t think Norway is a cultural Mecca—consider the guy who’s currently on trial in Norway for murdering over 70 teenagers in the name of Aryanism. I’m also not sure what “a certain element” meant, but I didn’t like the implication.

We tend to avoid discussions about politics and religion in this country because we are so polarized. Unfortunately, because we don’t communicate, the polarization continues to deepen. At the end of the day, both those who loved Obamacare and those who didn’t logged out of Facebook and prepared dinner. People who liked Obamacare because they thought it reflected the values of Christianity or social justice held fast to their convictions, while those who felt that Obamacare was poor stewardship of God’s or America’s resources also clung to their beliefs. We all sat down at our tables and talked to our kids and looked into their eyes wanting them to have a better world that the one we have now.

Is Facebook the place for religious and political discourse? That’s debatable. It’s too much to ask that all of our opinions be well-reasoned and well-articulated, particularly when you’re typing furiously into a little white rectangular box. One Facebook friend weighed in on Obamacare and then took his post down. However, I do remember that at the end of what he’d written, he’d said, “You can all go back to posting pictures of your dinner now.”

Maybe my friend is right. Maybe we should reserve Facebook for the shallow end of the pool. But I do think that we have to wade into the deep end every now and then to keep the dialogue open. I dare you to start a reasonable conversation with someone about Obamacare and to do it face-to-face. If the discussion helps you to see a real person behind the rhetoric, then the discomfort that you both feel will be worth it.