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Is civil conversation about politics even possible?

Is civil conversation about politics even possible?


Should people talk politics this way? Leave your comments below.

Sitting in a fast-food restaurant in Cayce, a group of self-described conservative senior citizens congregate most mornings to drink coffee and talk. Not surprisingly, the presidential campaign gives them lots to chat about these days.

“We love Sarah,” says Wilma Clubb, of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Others in the group agree with Clubb’s assertion. Then talk quickly turns to the opposing presidential candidate, and the tone changes completely.

John Kirkland of West Columbia acknowledges if someone joined the conversation who didn’t hold the same views “they’d probably leave or be silent.”

As anyone knows who’s ever engaged in a political conversation with those who hold differing views, the volume and blood pressures could shoot up quickly.

This year’s historical and hotly contested presidential election is supplying legendary fuel to political debates and casual conversations alike. Later this week, the two presidential candidates — Barack Obama and John McCain — meet in the first of three debates. Unfortunately, a civil discourse among friends, family and even strangers can take an ugly turn quicker than a five-second sound bite.

Is it possible for individuals with varied political opinions to discuss the candidates, or, heaven forbid, even the issues, without winding up in verbal fisticuffs?

The experts say yes, but it demands careful attention to audience, words and tone.

“When people disagree with one another it’s difficult to remain civil,” said Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of “Talking about Politics: Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life.”

“I tend to think it’s because we don’t have a lot of great role models,” she said.

One need only flip a channel, turn a knob or connect online to get a loud dose of partisan insistence (or screaming). From cable television pundits to bloggers and even the candidates themselves, we rarely see or hear people engaged in calm political discussions.

“Listening is really the key,” said Walsh. “Things get out of hand when (people) talk past each other.”

At Cee Jay’s Barber Shop on Beltline Boulevard, customers can often engage in political conversation along with a trim.

“We might see something on the TV, this (candidate) said something, and there it will go,” said customer Tony Richardson.

At times the exchange can become “excited.”

“We might like the same person but might not like something about them or one of their views,” said Richardson.

And then the armchair — or barber chair — debate is on.

“People cut each other off, everyone jumps in,” Richardson said.

Incivility in politics is nothing new, of course.

“Politics has always been about power,” Walsh said. “It is inherently arguing about who’s going to be on top ... and there’s always tension in that.”

While Walsh thinks citizens should engage in political conversations as part of the democratic process, she also suggests thinking carefully about whom you engage.

“I don’t think you should have a political conversation if that conversation will harm you in any way,” she said.

Refraining from discussing your views or voting record with a boss or co-worker could keep you out of trouble and not force you to wonder if they’ll hold it against you at a later time.

While talking politics in polite company was once taboo, Cindy Grosso, owner of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette, says it’s now a hard topic to avoid. Yet, we don’t have to forget our manners, she insists.

“Everyone has a different opinion and different view,” said Grosso. “No matter what your personal political views are you can still talk positively about the events.”

It’s not mandatory to agree or disagree or even offer your opinion, according to Grosso. “Partaking in a conversation by listening doesn’t mean you have to form a view or give one.”

And if you choose to offer your thoughts, be sure to keep your tone positive, she said.

If things turn negative, Grosso offers this verbal speed bump to stop things from deteriorating further:

“You can say, ‘That’s why our country is so great, because there is room for everyone’s view. There’s room for all of us ...’ They can’t argue with that.”

However, we all know one in the crowd (or family) who takes great pleasure in stirring the political pot. What then?

Stay calm.

“It ticks them off immensely,” said Susan RoAne , author of “Face to Face: How to Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World.”

Then you can change the subject, she said.

“I think when someone is vehement there is a judgment call to make,” said RoAne. “One might need to excuse oneself from the conversation.”

And above all else, remember there is life after the elections.

“After the elections are over, we go back to living in our same communities and being related to our relatives, that we may not have picked if given a choice, and we are still going to go to the same events and get along and if nothing else be perfunctorily polite.” said RoAne.

Reach Nalepa at (803) 771-8507.




Author: Robin Cowie Nalepa

Source: The State Paper

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