In seventh grade I was cornered behind the bleachers at a high school football game by an eighth-grade boy a foot taller than me.
“You’re a communist,” he said. “And you’re going to hell.”
I was terrified he was going to pound me into the ground, but he didn’t. With a hateful sneer, he stalked off.
That was my first political experience – and it shook me up badly. I knew the source of his anger were the religious beliefs of our parents. His were conservatives who thought anything but a parochial school education was evil. Mine were liberals who believed in choosing the best schools they could find for their kids. Our small Texas town was split on this issue, neighbor against neighbor, schoolmate against schoolmate, in a mini-civil war that lasted for decades.
Today, the city in which I work also is engaged in something of its own mini-civil war. The issue is whether and how the city should grow – or not grow – in the latest Florida land boom. Recently, I again faced a verbal bully – not behind the bleachers, but in a board room full of business leaders. Because I dared try to present a balanced agenda for a forum on growth, he went into full rant at me for at least five minutes, leaving a roomful of stunned executives.
In some ways, not much has changed in 55 years. But I have. I am not intimidated by such bullies. And I know far better at 67 than I did at 13 how to deal with them. I believe in confronting rage with reason, distortions with truth. I believe it is possible to disagree passionately but civilly, without name-calling and threats.
My father taught me that lesson, back in 1953. For I wasn’t the only victim of a bully back then. One night, coming out of a meeting of church leaders trying to mediate the dispute, Dad and his friends were ambushed in the dark and beaten with fists and clubs by men from the opposing side. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured.
Did my father take up arms against the cowardly miscreants? No! He nursed his bruises and continued to seek peaceful solutions to the religious conflict, along with other concerned community leaders who were appalled at the violence.
Today political bullies still stalk people with whom they disagree. They lurk in the shadows of the internet, and ambush candidates with deceitful rumors and robocall campaigns. They poison political discourse.
My father showed me by example that you have to stand up to bullies of all stripes. And I believe that even one voice can make a difference. In this election year, I believe we can move away from the politics of personal destruction. I believe that we can restore civility to politics, to government, and to our daily lives.
People hoot when I make that statement. Of course there is incivility all around us. But I believe we can do better. We have to. Because if we don’t we may lose our democracy. People will become so fed up they won’t bother to vote. Politicians will be so corrupt they won’t pretend to represent the public interest. And popular culture will become so coarse that we won’t be able to turn on the TV or radio.
I believe we are a better people than that. A better society, and a better nation. I believe a 13-year-old should feel free to state his political beliefs without being picked on by bullies. Or a 67-year-old, for that matter.
This I believe.
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