Political dialogue isn’t

©2011 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READER: The following newspaper column was initially published in 1981 and subsequently on my CD “A West Texas Journalist” (2011):  therefore, all of the persons mentioned (other than Ronald Reagan) are seldom in the headlines now, and some are dead. However, the theme of the essay is still timely and important. That is one reason I am publishing it here. Another reason is that I haven’t anything current, in the way of a suitable subject, about which to write just now; and I want to keep my blog site’s blood circulating a while longer.
— BL

I lost a friendship of many years standing recently.  He is one of my liberal associates at Southern Methodist University.

Not sure what happened, but I would suppose his coolness developed from my having shown one of his letters questioning the oil industry’s “obscene profits” to one of my local oil industry acquaintances.

“Look,” I said to this latter individual, “my friend up in Dallas keeps sending me letters like this.  And here’s a clipping, too, from the Dallas Times Herald he has enclosed describing the enormous profits the oil companies are reporting this year.

“I don’t know anything about oil prices.  But I think he deserves some kind of answer, and I believe it would be good if you two would start up a correspondence.  You should know enough to be able to answer his questions, and I know you’re always complaining to me that you can’t get your story across to any of the liberals.”

So, I left a copy of the letter and the newspaper clipping with the local acquaintance.  He expressed then an eagerness to enter into a colloquy with my old friend.  However, it was more than a month before he got around to writing the letter.  Still, he did write it, and I respect him for that.

A week or so later, the oil man got a brief note from my Dallas friend, who said he was just leaving on a two-week vacation in Europe but would like to enter into a dialogue with him as soon as he returned.  He never followed through.

Before you smirk and mumble, “Ain’t that a liberal for you!”, I want to add that many of my conservative acquaintances behave with similar insularity.

A few days ago, an article appeared in the Odessa American written by William Hines of the Chicago Sun-Times.  The article described a letter written by Ralph Nader to Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman as “rude” and “abrasive”.

The article then quoted some phrases from Nader’s letter which supposedly proved how “rude” and “abrasive” he was.  As I read through the comments, however, all I could see was that Nader was being forthright in his criticism of what Stockman was doing.  He was castigating Stockman for his “‘…across-the-board obstruction of the government’s statutory lifesaving and disease-reducing missions.’”

Granted, Nader did slip into occasional rhetorical overkill, as when he reportedly suggested to Stockman that “’…a tiny kernel of empathy may be striving to survive’” within his mind.  Yet, consider that Nader’s years of work are suddenly being squeezed into near-nothing by the flick of a bureaucrat’s pen, and you must then allow him some leeway for emotional verbosity.  There still is nothing in the letter as quoted to indicate it was either “rude” or “abrasive”, just emotional and critical.

Anyway, I tried to show the article to a conservative acquaintance of mine the other day, and he pushed it away, saying, “If it’s about Nader, I don’t want to read it.”

How many people do you know who use Ralph Nader and Jane Fonda as voodoo dolls?  Stick pins in them, the notion goes, and you’ll damage the liberal cause.  Similarly, the liberals take aim at David Stockman and Alexander Haig, Jr., who, from the liberals’ point of view are evil incarnate.  In the meantime, the real problems and issues seldom get tackled.

The point is: Not many of us are willing to listen to the other side of any issue or hold any sort of dialogue with our ideological opposites.  We just want to talk to folks of our own sort.  But then, what conversation do we end up with?  Nothing but the same old sing-song about how good we are and how despicable are those other people.

It is all attributable to selective receiving.  We choose what we want to pay attention to and what we want to understand.  We are all “gate-keepers” when it comes to information dispensed and received.

As newspaper people, we at the Monahans News are obvious gate-keepers.  Primarily for reasons of space and local relevance, we block out a lot of the “news releases” we receive and severely edit others.  Often, the “flow-blocking” is simple; just as often, however, it can lead to some real head-scratching.

You the reader are a gate-keeper, too.  What you choose to read, how you read it, and how you pass the information on to others in your conversations can have enormous impact on a circle of opinion.  If you read only one type of newspaper or listen to only one commentator, you are restricting the information you receive.

True enough, we are inundated with information of all sorts these days, some of it important and much of it trivial.  It would be dangerous as well as foolish, however, to generalize about what is trivial.  The price of tea in China may not be very significant to us in Ward County, but to the Chinese tea-grower as well as the American cities wherein are located the major tea companies it would be very important news.

We therefore have to be selective about the information we receive, but we should always be on the alert for bias in the sender and the receiver (ourselves).  As for the massiveness of information, we need to decide what subjects have a significant impact on us and therefore require our attention.  Then we should be receptive to—and even demanding of—information covering all sides of those subjects.

Admittedly, that is no small task.  Too many news stories, lamentably, deal with trivial matters…like, “Ronald and Nancy Reagan were both taking a bath when Jimmy Carter made his speech conceding defeat” and “Barry Goldwater limped away, suffering from an old leg injury”.

Also, most commentaries are supportive of a single point of view.  They therefore tend to slight or ignore the opposite side.  Very few present a balanced summation of each side of an issue and then argue for that position they consider most worthy.

As a result, readers—the final gatekeepers—have to continually battle frustration and impatience within themselves if they genuinely desire to know what is really going on.  If too many of them give up the battle and slide into the easy rut of bias and insularity, then our country will be in danger of becoming another Iran.

The Monahans News, August 16, 1981

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