Saturday, November 01, 2008

The fine art of disagreeing

Disagreeing with another person seems to have lost its fine art. It is normal in politics today to throw back innuendoes at each other, which most oftentimes characterizes the negative campaigning we have seen and heard on TV. McCain calling Obama a “socialist” for suggesting to spread the wealth. Or Obama suggesting that McCain was erratic. But that is fair game, it is in the nature of politics to be destructive.

But to hear the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, complaining that her First Amendment rights may have been threatened by negative criticisms about her by reporters or columnists is way off-line. She might be voicing the standard right-wing grievance that it’s inherently unfair when they are criticized by the mainstream media. To complain that it has threatened her rights of free speech under the Constitution shows her profound ignorance of our basic liberties.

This reminds me of how ordinary people like you or me who is not into politics could also be at the receiving end of an unfair criticism. It could be a simple exchange of opposing opinions. You graciously accept the other side’s criticisms and quietly lick your chops. But when you counter with your own criticism, the other side balks and reacts quite angrily by throwing dirt at you, or digs something nasty about your past and brings it into open to denigrate you, which you know, or the other party is also probably aware, has no relevance to the subject in dispute. The purpose is simply to throw you off balance, perhaps to silence you by taking away your right to express yourself.

Sometimes this kind of uncalled-for criticism works—and not to enlighten the discussion, because it’s not even germane to the debate. But it can stop you dead on your track. When the other side puts a twist on what you said that you have never intended, it casts you in a negative light. It puts an end to any intelligent discussion. You have just been a victim of character assassination, so welcome to the world of bloodless murder.

What the other side may not know, or the others who were complicit by their silence, is that the consequences of attempts to assassinate a person’s reputation are like literally an assassination of human life. It can cause him to be rejected by the community, by his friends, and to some extent, by his family. There could be lasting consequences which may endure even beyond the person’s own life.

We have learned from religious teaching that we should not bear false witness against our neighbour. But that’s easier said than done.

When was the last time your character was defamed? You must have felt so powerless. You wanted to get even because you couldn’t control the anger that has welled up within you. You were afraid your friends believed every word said about you and they in turn had turned their backs on you.

Your character is your most prized possession, and when it has been destroyed, the person inside you cries for revenge. But when you are about to strike back, you realize that it’s not worth it. That is the moment when intelligence triumphs over passion, when reason rules over emotion.

Reason always tells us that the best way to deal with a character assassin is to convert him to be a character builder. There is wisdom in blessing those who persecute, instead of cursing them. This may be a religious approach, but the history of martyrdom is full of men and women who have turned their backs to their enemies, of loving them rather than prolonging the hatred and animosity. There is virtue in believing in the age-old concept of wisdom, of giving in to both the demands of the mind and the demands of the heart. It is what keeps us human, not to give in to our animal instincts of aggression and attack, but to be able to restore and aid fellow human beings.

When you can feel that no amount of vitriol can make you stoop to the other side’s malevolence, that means you have become master of yourself.

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