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Ask Auntie Pinko

April 21, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I'm a Republican, and a conservative one at that. I consider myself a smart, responsible guy, and therefore I find it important to get balanced news and analysis. So, not only do I enjoy Fox News, Drudge, Limbaugh, and Coulter, but I also read Democratic Underground, The Crisis Papers, and The New York Times, to name a few. My question is this:

Many if not nearly all on the left seem to advocate extreme behavior if not violence when confronting the right, whether in a protest, dialog, or other venues. For example, Ann Coulter was pelted with pies, Pat Buchanan doused with salad dressing, and so on. I see even more examples of outright violence against the opposing side (Republicans) and I begin to wonder. The Democrats are the party of tolerance, peace, understanding, and intellectual debate. Why do I see so much which would lead me to believe otherwise? Certainly the media hones in on the bad apples. But I have to say, even on balance, it appears that the left has really gotten out of hand. What say you?

Todd
Fishers, IN


Dear Todd,

Auntie Pinko has, I hope, made it quite clear in many past columns that I advocate neither violence nor rude, childish behavior. Violence, other than in defense of one's own person or a helpless other from imminent physical threat, is against my principles. Rude, childish behavior, regardless of the ideological standpoint of the perpetrator, is inevitably counterproductive.

That said, I also think that there is considerable room for latitude in the definition of "violence" and "rude, childish behavior." Attractive (and dangerous) gray areas exist.

Perhaps it might help to make things clear if I offer my own definitions.

Violence generally comprises actions that intentionally result in a victim's family or friends waiting anxiously for a doctor's report; in someone having their home or their means of sustenance destroyed; or in the sincere fear on the part of the victim that their (or their family's) life or safety is immediately at extreme risk. Such actions are unambiguously wrong, and should be regarded as criminal.

In a gray area are actions that destroy other personal property than an individual's home or basic means of sustenance; result in unintentional, relatively minor, injury; or in the victim's worry about the safety of their property or person. Such actions are usually wrong, and may be criminal.

In a much lighter gray area are actions that damage property not owned by individuals; cost resources to protect individuals or property from a genuine possibility of damage; or express in vigorous and negative terms angry, hateful feelings and denigrating sentiments about a person or group of people. Such actions may be wrong, but may also be part of a legitimate civil disobedience, and an exercise of freedom of speech (using the Constitutional definition of "speech" which more closely resembles the common usage of "expression"). However, they might also be criminal, and those undertaking such actions should expect to experience reasonable consequences if that is the case.

Rude, childish behavior, on the other hand, is behavior that expresses negative emotions against an individual, without regard for their humanity, and with the intent of demeaning them, humiliating them, and/or demonstrating their inferiority. Such behavior may or may not involve violence (see above) and may or may not be criminal. However, it is also generally an exercise of freedom of (Constitutional definition, again) speech, and may be part of legitimate civil disobedience. If not violent or criminal, it may still be reprehensible, but only from the standpoint of good manners and political pragmatism.

It is possible to regard someone whose views you oppose as a friend, and even find occasional common ground. Sometimes you may even succeed in changing their opinions or turning them into allies. I think it's interesting to note that Paul Wellstone and Jesse Helms, two individuals who could not possibly be further apart ideologically, had considerable respect and personal friendship for one another. This contributed on more than one occasion, according to Senator Wellstone, in helping him achieve key goals.

But it's practically impossible to make a friend, or even a temporary ally, of an individual you have publicly humiliated, or exposed to ridicule. Ridicule is an influential tool in public debate. Nothing can impair the power of an idea or the effectiveness of a policy more than making people regard it as laughable and silly. Pointing out the folly of some assertion or action is a potent way to weaken that assertion or action, or render it harmless.

When our ideas or actions are ridiculed, our feelings are hurt, and we often react negatively. Part of being a mature adult - particularly in the political arena - is learning to move beyond such criticism, no matter how stinging, of their actions or words. But when ridicule is applied, not to words, ideas, or actions, but to individual persons, it can evoke virulent, long-lasting hostility and enmity. That enmity can damage both parties, and interfere with important public service.

Pie-ing may be regarded under the category of rude, childish behavior. In most cases, it would certainly rank as a personal attack, and an attempt to ridicule not an idea, but a person. It is important to remember, though, that individuals who consciously transform themselves into symbols of some ideology, policy, or viewpoint, tend to attract the hostility that such an ideology, policy, or viewpoint might provoke. A certain amount of such hostility is (while it remains rude and childish) pretty predictable, and those who are sufficiently thin-skinned to take it personally should probably avoid purposely attracting such symbolic attention to themselves.

Those experienced in taking highly controversial, highly visible positions learn to deal effectively with such attempts to make them look ridiculous - it can be done, certainly. Auntie attended, many years ago, a public event at which the speaker was the victim of a pie attack. She looked very surprised for a moment (who wouldn't!) then asked calmly for a towel, and wiped her face to reveal herself licking her lips and grinning thoughtfully. She turned to the pie-throwers and said, "Next time, I'd prefer banana cream, if you don't mind," and winked at them, evoking a laugh from the audience. She then took off her jacket, leaned over the podium, and continued talking.

There are certainly incidents of real violence perpetrated by those on the left. And Ted Rall's "Right Wing Challenge," on his blog spot last February shows that lefties can be just as hateful, vicious, and childish as their rightwing counterparts. Auntie disapproves, definitely. However, "out of hand?" Compared to Mr. DeLay assertion that those "responsible" for the many court decisions affirming Michael Schiavo's right to have Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube removed will "answer for their behavior"? And then, a few weeks later at the NRA, saying that "...when a man is in trouble or in a good fight, you want to have your friends around, preferably armed?"

Or compared to Senator Cornyn's thinly-veiled justification of violence against judges by those who are angered or frustrated by the judges' decisions?

In the face of the rising tide of real violence - shootings, bomb threats, etc., against supposedly "liberal," "activist" judges - the dry-cleaning bill for some pundit's suit doesn't even begin to stack up as "out of hand." But thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Todd.


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