Out­grow­ing Alin­sky-style name-call­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Ben S. Car­son

When I was in high school in Detroit in the mid- to late 1960s, we used to en­gage in the com­mon prac­tice of “cap­ping,” which in­volved at­tempts to pub­licly hu­mil­i­ate your op­po­nent with mean­spir­ited ver­biage.

I usu­ally tried to avoid what I thought was a silly prac­tice, but I re­mem­ber one day be­ing un­able to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to fire back when one of my class­mates be­gan talk­ing about my shirt. He said, “That shirt looks like it’s been through World War I, World War II, World War III and World War IV.” I fired back a short but highly ef­fec­tive quip that made him a laugh­ing­stock. I sim­ply said, “And your momma wore it.”

In­ter­est­ingly enough, af­ter my ver­bal vic­tory, that adolescent group, in­clud­ing the vic­tim, be­came much more ac­cept­ing of me, and it felt good to have gained their ap­proval, even though I was sure that my value sys­tem was at odds with theirs. I be­gan to so­cial­ize with th­ese fel­lows, and there was a no­tice­able change for the worse in the way that I treated oth­ers. In ret­ro­spect, I am par­tic­u­larly ashamed of join­ing in episodes of heap­ing hideous ver­bal abuse on other tar­geted class­mates, who were not guilty of any­thing other than not fit­ting in.

Un­for­tu­nately, this type of in­fan­tile adolescent be­hav­ior is still quite preva­lent in our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. In­stead of “cap­ping” their op­po­nents, many in the po­lit­i­cal class en­gage in hy­per­bolic dem­a­goguery in an at­tempt to de­mo­nize those who dis­agree with them. This is not sur­pris­ing, be­cause in his book “Rules For Rad­i­cals,” Saul Alin­sky, the orig­i­nal rad­i­cal com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer and so­ci­etal change agent, says you should never have a ra­tional dis­cus­sion with your op­po­nent. Do­ing so would hu­man­ize him, and your goal is to de­mo­nize him. With this tac­tic, he states that you can in­cur your op­po­nent’s wrath, caus­ing him to re­spond an­grily, and in many cases, ir­ra­tionally, which then pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to use that ir­ra­tional re­sponse against him.

This is an es­pe­cially use­ful tac­tic when you have the me­dia on your side. The adolescent “cap­ping” episodes sel­dom oc­curred be­tween just two in­di­vid­u­als, but were pur­posely put on glo­ri­ous dis­play in the com­pany of an ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence. Sim­i­larly, di­vi­sive politi­cians seem en­er­gized by mi­cro­phones and cam­eras, and ea­gerly ac­cuse their op­po­nents of ridicu­lous things, such as want­ing el­derly peo­ple to die, chil­dren to starve or our na­tion to fail. In their heart of hearts, they know that their op­po­nents want no such things, but their de­sire to score po­lit­i­cal points with an au­di­ence that wishes to be­lieve neg­a­tive things about oth­ers over­whelms the rule of in­tegrity.

Last week, I was en­gaged in a din­ner con­ver­sa­tion with a num­ber of prom­i­nent in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing a very high of­fi­cial of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion. I was talk­ing about the fact that we are se­verely com­pro­mis­ing the fu­ture of our prog­eny by re­lent­lessly in­creas­ing our na­tional debt. He proudly pro­claimed that the rate of debt ac­cu­mu­la­tion was slow­ing down and, there­fore, there was no cause for alarm. I stated that if a bal­loon was over­in­flated and in dan­ger of rup­tur­ing, putting just a lit­tle more air into it, as op­posed to a lot more air, would have the same dis­as­trous re­sults.

He did not have a come­back for that ar­gu­ment, but I sus­pect that if you had given him a mi­cro­phone and an ador­ing au­di­ence, he would have ac­cused me of be­ing crit­i­cal and want­ing the poli­cies of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion to fail. I sus­pect the ver­biage, how­ever, would have been more col­or­ful in an at­tempt to evoke an emo­tional re­sponse from the au­di­ence. There is a big dif­fer­ence be­tween point­ing out de­fects in the poli­cies of an op­po­nent in a thought­ful and ra­tional man­ner, and en­gag­ing in wan­ton pre­var­i­ca­tion to stoke the fires of emo­tion.

There is noth­ing wrong with dis­agree­ment. In fact, I am very fond of say­ing that if two peo­ple agree about ev­ery­thing, one of them is not nec­es­sary. Dis­agree­ment should not make peo­ple into en­e­mies, es­pe­cially if they are will­ing to dis­cuss their dif­fer­ences ra­tio­nally, rather than try­ing to de­mo­nize each other. All sides are guilty of this be­hav­ior, and we could all ben­e­fit from a dose of ma­tu­rity and kind­ness. In­stead of en­gag­ing in par­ti­san bick­er­ing, try the fol­low­ing ex­er­cise for a week:

Speak to peo­ple you nor­mally walk by and ig­nore. Let some­one else go first. Help some­one who is strug­gling. Com­fort some­one who is dis­tressed. Give some­one a cou­ple of bucks who came up short at the check­out counter.

If you can af­ford it, give a hard­work­ing in­di­vid­ual in the ser­vice sec­tor a gen­er­ous tip.

Ig­nore those who only crit­i­cize and at­tack, and in­stead, con­cen­trate on solv­ing prob­lems.

Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft an­swer turns away wrath, but griev­ous words stir up anger.” See how you feel af­ter that one week has passed, and I sus­pect many of us may want to con­tinue lead­ing pos­i­tive and con­struc­tive lives. Ben S. Car­son is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of neu­ro­surgery at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity.

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