A Civil War

October 21, 2012

Guest Contributors

Guest post by Marianne Monson

Right now I cannot honestly say I am proud to be an American. This is an extreme statement, particularly from someone who always votes, pays taxes, and inevitably chokes up a bit during the national anthem. But after reading the online comments posted in response to a CNN article about the most recent Presidential debates, I was left with an intensely bitter taste in my mouth: I believe it is disgust.

The banter in the comments went back and forth, soon deteriorating into a mud slinging, name calling, swearing mess wherein attacks were launched at the other person’s: political party, intelligence, religion, state of origin, mother, or all of the above. The chanting, all caps, and exclamation marks recalled the songs of high school cheerleaders: “OBAMA OBAMA OooooooooBAMA!!!!!!”

Last night on national television I watched two grown men behaving like testosterone-saturated teens, circling each other as they sparred, contradicted, blamed, and condemned each other as liars. At several points I watched with the same sick sensation you feel during an episode of Jerry Springer, when you know it’s going to get a bit revolting, but you can’t quite drag your eyes away.

This debate followed last week’s vice-presidential debate where the best question of the whole election was tidily sidestepped and ignored. Moderator Martha Raddatz quoted a soldier who said this presidential campaign has focused on tearing the opponent down rather than building up the nation.  She asked: “At the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?”

Biden responded marginally to the question, acknowledging that “some” sources in the election may have overstepped their bounds, before hastily reverting back to the topic of the economy, while Ryan blamed Obama for all the blaming that has gone on (ironic a tad?) and then promptly returned to slandering Obama’s economic policies to fill the remainder of his time.

But the ignored question is perhaps the most pertinent of all. Should we as Americans feel embarrassed by the tone of these elections? Is it possible, when so much power and money and prestige is on the line, to even entertain the idea that such a discussion could happen respectfully? Would it be inconceivable that we might have an honest conversation about the best course of action for our country, without turning the whole thing into a sporting event where the other “team” is characterized as ridiculous, malicious, and even evil?

This has been a unique election for me personally. I was raised Mormon in a politically conservative household and my father worked with Mitt Romney for several years. My father has tremendous respect for Romney both as a person and as a businessman and feels his financial expertise would serve our country well at this time. On the other hand, I remain undecided. I voted for Obama four years ago and feel that in many ways he has done a fantastic job. He is an inspiring, articulate leader who moves me deeply and represents us well on the international stage. For the first time since I have been able to vote, I feel both options have genuine advantages. I also have close friends and colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum, and I guess this is precisely why the bitter, accusatory tone of these elections has been so hard to swallow.

Years ago I spent six months living in east Jerusalem. As an American student, I was able to travel freely between Israel and occupied Palestine. I came to know and admire both cultures, forming meaningful friendships on both sides. And the thing that distressed me most, was that every time I travelled between the two areas I was warned by both: “Be careful over there. Those people are_____.” You can fill in the blank. “They are dangerous. They are evil. They are dirty. They are dishonest. They will steal from you. Hurt you. Take advantage of you. They are not good or kind or friendly. Like we are.”

What is it about human nature that must find someone else to categorize as “other?” –as separate and distinct from oneself and therefore less? I am sick of Republicans calling Democrats crazy liberals who care more about polar bears than babies. And I’m equally sick of Democrats calling Republicans deluded religious fanatics who want to abandon the poor.

The honest truth is that there are genuinely good people on every side of every line you can draw on this earth. And perhaps the most dangerous, divisive weapon humanity holds is an inclination to define a group of people as “other,” and thereby justify treating them as less. That spirit of divisiveness is almost always the true culprit behind war and poverty and genocide, wielded by dictators and bullies alike. It negatively impacts this nation by forcing us to choose between “camps” rather than among complex positions. If we have to define ourselves as either Democrats or Republicans, we collectively lose the opportunity to choose between the best of both political spheres, subjugating the moderate majority to more extreme elements.

Even more disturbingly, divisiveness renders problem solving impossible because issues become so polarizing that friends and family, who care deeply about each other, no longer feel they can actually talk about the most pressing issues with those whose opinions matter the most.

There are crucial difficulties facing this nation today. Resolving them is going to require immense effort from both sides of every line that divides us. If we can’t put party politics aside and come together as Americans at the coffee shops and kitchen tables and campuses of this country, then how can we possibly expect our politicians to do what we cannot?

If we really want a bi-partisan America, then let it begin in the streets and on the blogs, and let it begin with a desire to see “others” as part of the whole, part of humanity, and part of this country—deeply connected to ourselves and our future, and yes, perhaps worthy of a little respect.

Marianne Monson is a freelance writer and children’s author and currently lives in Portland Oregon.   
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18 Comments on “A Civil War”

  1. TK Howell Says:

    Marianne Monson ROCKS 🙂 I think its inportant to “fight” and be passionate about principles or what you believe in and support it. To Stand up for those principles, however that doesn’t require personal attacks, put downs etc…that’s a clear sign your loosing the fight for sure…oh and Marianne Monson ROCKS 🙂

  2. Thomas Cox Says:

    (Please note I’m neither Mormon nor for Obama – I’m just a guest on this site. 😉

    Humans feel a great need to ‘belong’ and to be agreed with. (Maslow put this at level 3 of his eponymous hierarchy of needs.) This is part of “human nature.”

    When someone doesn’t agree with us, we often go through three stages of processing this non-agreement — I call them Ignorant-Stupid-Evil. It goes like this.

    1. I can’t believe you don’t see things like I do. You must lack the Facts that I have — you must be ignorant. Let me forward you 92 links to web pages that prove that I’m right. (See also “selection bias.”)

    2. I can’t believe you don’t see things like I do. I already shared the facts with you. You must lack the ABILITY to correctly assess the facts — you must be Stupid.

    3. I can’t believe you don’t see things like I do. We’ve interacted enough that I see that you are smart and capable of assessing facts, yet you somehow refuse to assess them correctly. The only remaining conclusion is that you are deliberately ignoring the One True Interpretation (mine) of the Facts — this means you are Evil.

    …and off we go.

    Next, add to the mix that elections are zero-sum games (in game theory terms) — when one wins, another loses, winner take all. This increases the pressure some folks feel to “win” the election, sometimes at the cost of incivility or even law-breaking — after all, the other side is “evil” and maybe the ends justify the means…

    Next, note that it is very time-consuming and tiring to be constantly explaining to your own side the “lies” of the other side. When “our side” (any group of humans, really) can be persuaded that the other side is “Evil” then that both energizes us in the short term, AND saves time and energy. Nobody wastes time refuting the arguments of Evil people — we don’t even bother to try to understand them, since they are obviously arguments made in bad faith.

    Next, note that the political parties have shifted over 20 years — we used to have conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, so some arguments at least could find adherents in both parties. This gave us permission to believe each side might have merit, because someone from “our” party was on each side. Much less true today.

    Finally, really interesting work has been done on “Moral Foundations Theory” by Jonathan Haidt (http://www.moralfoundations.org/) — a standard liberal will typically be motivated by only two of Haidt’s six values, namely Caring and Fairness. Conservatives are motivated by all six to varying degrees. (I’m mostly motivated by three.) This makes it very hard to have a constructive conversation, if you haven’t noticed up front that your foundational values differ.


    Destructive conflict takes place in an environment of low trust. You can create destructive conflict with these behaviors (hat tip to Flanagan and Runde). First, “active destructive” conflict behavior:

    1. Invent negative intentions and place them in the mouth of your conflict partner. “You just want to destroy the country!”

    2. Win at all costs.

    3. Display anger and other ‘hot’ emotions in an irresponsible and intimidating way.

    4. Exact retribution. (Unions and certain other interest groups are notorious for punishing lawmakers who vote against them, even years later.)

    5. Demean people – engage in personal attacks.

    Next, “passive destructive” conflict behavior both enables the bullies and freezes the dysfunction in place:

    6. Perform elaborate work-arounds that allow obstructive and destructive behavior to continue – don’t confront and require more mature behavior.

    7. Yield and say “you win” to avoid actually discussing the content.

    8. Self-criticize

    9. Hide your emotions

    10. Avoid certain topics or people – don’t clear the air.


    I could give you an essay on how to fix it, however that would be longer. 😉

  3. michelleatplay Says:

    Thanks, Marianne. I am grateful to read a post that so eloquently expresses my feelings. I feel disenfranchised from both sides and I fail to see the evil either way. I have concerns with both candidates, and respect for many aspects of each. I don’t think either one is a savior. In this case, we must save ourselves, recognizing that civil discourse will get us closer to the goals each one of has in common. Amen, and amen.

  4. honestyalwayswin Says:

    Unfortunately no one really knows how bad our national debt is going to play out to
    Our future except some of us who personally experienced how overburden debt can affect family life. For that reason alone makes some of us passionately concerned, insecured, and passionately disagree.
    Maybe we need more calm and constructive minds to stand up to lead us
    Before Usa become like Greece.
    Correct me if I am wrong about this.
    Our God wants us to be cold or hot, not lukeworm
    I am a democrat and have been going to churches for over 30 years and learned that how selfish most pastors ànd leaders are. I can tell you most Christians are like Romney including myself. That is why I would not vote for myself nor Romney for our president.
    Remember this scripture
    “Many were called but a few are chosen”
    We may call ourselves Christians but may not be chosen by a christ to be christians

  5. honestyalwayswin Says:

    Lets hope and love our political enemy(still our citizens) that we do not have to have another civil war to settle the difference.

  6. Convert for Obama Says:

    “There are crucial difficulties facing this nation today. Resolving them is going to require immense effort from both sides of every line that divides us. If we can’t put party politics aside and come together as Americans at the coffee shops and kitchen tables and campuses of this country, then how can we possibly expect our politicians to do what we cannot?”
    Well, yes, I agree with that statement; it’s a lofty desire. However, it’s hard not to take sides and fight back when one sees what has happened the last four years. Our president has gone out of his way to reach across party lines and work with the republicans in congress…and where did that get him? Nowhere! All the republicans care about is getting president Obama out of the White House, period. He has hosted them in the White House, played golf with them, extended his hand, and every single time they have turned their faces the other way like spoiled little kids. Is it any wonder this congress has the lowest job approval rate in history? They are not interested in coming together to solve the problems facing the nation; their only goal/obsession is to get the president out of the way so they can go back to raping the environment, give more tax brakes to the wealthy and corporations and wage war.

    • AmericaTheBeautiful Says:

      We see what we want to see. Those on the other side of the isle says Obama has been the recalcitrant one. Even Bob Woodward, no republican, pointed out in his book that Obama was the one who ruined the debt ceiling deal.

      Reagan and Clinton had to deal with a congress comprised of the other party, but both men did. In fact Reagan inherited a mess, but he never blamed Carter, and at this point in his presidency the economy was roaring.

      Clinton, inherited a mess, admittedly not as big a mess as Reagan or Obama, yet at this point in his presidency the economy was roaring.

      You say the republicans were difficult yet Obama’s party controlled congress and the presidency for his first two years. What did they achieve?

      Since Obama took office congress has not passed a budget, including the two years the democrats controlled congress.

      Last year, when Obama sent his budget to congress, no one, not even one democrat voted for it. That is how bad it was.

      The question is not why have they not worked together, the question is why hasn’t Obama been a better leader. Leaders get people to work together. Even stubborn people. Clinton was able to work with Gingrich, one of the most bullheaded and stubborn congressmen.

      Pseudo leaders place blame, point fingers, and take their ball home.

      • honestyalwayswin Says:

        How to you feel about the Republicans who pledged no more taxes?
        It seems very obvious our government need more revenue.
        According one media that many rich people have become much richer in this generation
        I hope this info is right that a certain percentage of our rich people have a combined asset of 40 trillion dollars.
        That sounds like there is enough money to pay off our national debt and still have some left if the riches got together and donate 1/3 of their asset to our government
        if Romney would become an example to lead the riches this way
        He would have a best chance becoming a president
        And more of Mormons and other Christians would definetely vote for him
        He would definitely has my vote if he give up 1/3 to paying down our debt.
        At least that is 2/3 less than what our lord require from us if we are to have a best chance for haven according to Bible.

      • honestyalwayswin Says:

        Do you believe those republican leaders who said their most important agenda is to limit president obama to one term president? I do.
        President bill clinton spoke in dem convention that president obama inherited much worse of everything than he did.
        He also said that he can not understand how much most republican leaders hate president obama for no good reason not good explanation.
        It seems a lot of Americans who does not believe president obama as a Christian but expect him to do miracles.

        Ask this question fellow christians
        If your church needs more funds
        Who do you expect to contribute more offering
        poor or rich member?
        Our government is no different than our church finance.
        Fact one that all American should consider before voting for a party president.
        Last 3 republican presidents with 20 years of them claimed good economy years
        Never balanced a budget.
        That is like you making more money but spending more.
        if you can not balance your budget with more money than you have a less chance with more debts
        give obama one more term and have him work with bill clinton
        who balanced a budget.

  7. Roz Says:

    Thank you all. Everyone has spoken quite eloquently here. Quite different from what I’m seeing on Twitter and FB. We each have our own reasons for who we are going to vote for. I support President Obama. I considered myself an independent and voted more for the person than the party, so I’ve voted for both in the past. He inspires me and I really believe in his goodness and strong capabilities. I’ve always been quite intuitive and rarely wrong about people. Obama has not let me down. He has accomplished a lot with a very difficult Congress and a country in almost unparalleled state of turmoil and damage. He saved us from a serious depression and has turned the ship around and things have improved quite a bit, but there is still a lot more to do. No one could have fixed the horrific condition of our country in just 4 years. I find him to be a dear man who loves his wife immensely and adores his kids. I really believe that he cares for each one of us and has shown it many times over. If you remember he was very polite in the first debate and took a licking for it. I’m no politician but it seems that it gets a little mean sometimes. I so dislike all the hate and bigotry I am seeing, especially the disrespect for our President, because he is half white and half black. As for me I see a very smart good man who has proved himself to be a darn good President and I thank God we have him. I am praying hard that we have him for another 4 years so he can finish. As for his opponent I could never vote for him. I am a very honest person and that trait is very important to me. He lacks honesty and integrity. I do not believe him to be compassionate because he’s made a lot of money hurting many people and our country. He did away with many jobs here and gave them to China. Those things are important to me because I want the man who runs our country caring what happens to all of us.

  8. AmericaTheBeautiful Says:

    Quick question for Marianne, which do you prefer:

    A] Grown men “behaving like testosterone-saturated teens” in an effort to convince others they should be the leader?
    B] Grown men shooting at each other on the field of battle trying to kill their opponent so they can be the leader?

    The wonderful thing about the American system of government is it creates a platform for our grievances, frustrations, and ideas to be aired in public, peacefully. The history of the world is one of war and violence. For over 200 years we have successfully changed leaders without the shedding of blood.

    I find it interesting that currently you are not proud to be an American. It seems you believe in an America that has never existed. Or you want to remake America into something it can never be.

    A couple of quick examples:

    Thomas Jefferson, one of the great American presidents, and I would argue one of the greats across all time and place, was no saint. In fact, he was a horrible man when it came to election time. While vice-president to John Adams he actively worked to undermine Adams, to ensure he would become president. Jefferson would often, under an alias, pen newspaper articles regarding Adams, filled with nothing more than base lies and filth. The sad part was Adams and Jefferson were the best of friends. But because Jefferson wanted to be president he tossed that friendship aside.

    Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, and a Democrat, was a horrible man. He was a virulent racist and a firm believer in eugenics. He fought multiple undeclared wars and forever damaged the relationship of the president and Congress.

    America has never been perfect. American has never been the kind of place you dream of or describe in your post. He elect imperfect men [maybe someday women] to be our leaders. But we elect them. We don’t shed blood to choose them. We may scream and yell and act like immature children at time, but that is ok. That is what makes America wonderful. [p.s. if you get frustrated with how our political leaders speak to each other I strongly recommend you never watch the British or EU parliaments conduct business.]

    We live in a wonderful country. One of the greatest to ever grace this pale blue dot we call home. It is as great today as it was 200 years ago. I am proud to live in a country that encourages grown men to act like testosterone-saturated teens rather marshal their supporters to kill the other. I am proud to live in a country where men and women can throw and hurl insults at each other due to differing political views but when someone is in need they come to their rescue, never asking what political party they belong to. I am proud to live in a country where we struggle with the failings of human nature but in the end do far more good than harm in world. I am proud of this country.

    I propose this is the difference between Obama and Romney. One see America the way you see it, with disappointment, shame, without exceptionalism. The other sees America as the shinning city on a hill and one of the great countries in the world today.

    Who do you want to vote for?

  9. Really?! Says:

    American the Beautiful, do you really think that the only options are
    “A] Grown men “behaving like testosterone-saturated teens” in an effort to convince others they should be the leader?
    B] Grown men shooting at each other on the field of battle trying to kill their opponent so they can be the leader?”
    I think the point of the post was that we should find a happy third option of civility in discourse. Maybe you should re-read it.

  10. Marianne Monson Says:

    If you want to see the type of America I described in my post, you need look no further than the debates tonight where two intelligent, articulate leaders honestly discussed their differences and similarities with respect and courtesy. Hmmm. Apparently it wasn’t as impossible as some readers may claim. Despicable actions of those in the past cannot ever be an excuse for despicable behavior now or going forward. Yes, I do love America in spite of her flaws, but I also love this nation enough to want and expect it to live up to its potential and become better when it falls short.

  11. Joseph Says:

    Hi Marianne!
    I guess my comment is this: I didn’t really feel that the two candidates got that out of hand during town hall style debate. In fact, it HAD to happen. I don’t know if you saw the first debate, but Obama gave such a limp performance, we Dems were absolutely begging him to takle it up a notch – and in turn, Romney had to match him. The debate was engaging, fascinating and very informative. I got an understanding of both candidates in ways that I couldn’t get by seeing them speak at campaign rallies in Ohio. That said, the polling showed that women tended to dislike the aggressiveness of the two candidates – so maybe there is a slight chance that what we’re seeing is a gender thing?

    Of course, comments on internet articles are almost always posted by trolls. Not just political articles, but ALL kinds of articles! And we’ve had our fair share posted on this site that we needed to delete! But I think both Romney and Obama get it. If you saw them at the Alfred Smith dinner Saturday night, they clearly had things in perspective – both of them were pretty funny; they poked at each other and themselves.

    And tonight’s debate wasn’t as much about civility as it was a strategy to show that they can be “presidential” as is typical in the last debate.

    So in summary, while I agree that we need to be civil in our discourse (see link below) – I don’t necessarily agree with your characterization of the two candidates as testosterone filled teens duing the debate. (In fact, I kinda think that your description is itself a bit outside the lines of civil discourse 😉 That last parenthesis doubles as an emoticon and a closer for my parenthetical LOL.

    But the real question: What can we do to get you from undecided to supporting Obama?!? I look at it this way: If you supported Obama in 2008 – then support him again! He is the same man he has always been!! If you agreed with his policies and vision then, (and I feel as if I want to quote Alma chapter 5,) can you feel so now?

    Obama 2012 yall! My ballot is in!!! Thanks for your post Marianne!


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