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OPINION: Mature political conversations

by EVAN KOCH/More Perfect Union
| February 15, 2023 1:00 AM

If you spend a lot of time around kids, you might notice they don’t tend to have the best verbal filters. Years ago, a popular advertising campaign called “Chewy Stops the Chatter” immortalized this phenomenon. As kids blurted out embarrassing details about their parents, parents would frantically try to occupy little mouths with Chewy granola bars.

Although funny, these gaffes are not entirely the kid’s fault. As children, we are still developing social awareness.

Even as adults, we are still learning to navigate how to say what needs to be said, when to say it, and how to leave well enough alone. One mark of maturity is mastering the expression of our most dearly-held beliefs. As we mature, we learn to talk about difficult subjects with social awareness taking into account context, impact and audience.

This concept can be tricky in political speech. For many, politics involves strong emotions, and strong emotions can wreck our social awareness and lead to sarcasm or even anger.

And yet, nowhere is the free and open exchange of speech more important than when talking about politics. When an elected official makes decisions for a large group of constituents, those decisions deserve to be challenged from all sides by stakeholders who might see things from a different angle. Without accountability politicians can make serious mistakes that have serious consequences.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

So how do we talk about politics as adults? We try to take into account context, impact and audience.

For context, North Idaho is conservative enough to be crimson. Angry tirades against the Liberal “woke” are everywhere, alongside denial of 2020 election results, “Let’s Go Brandon” flags, and you know the rest.

This is the context in which Democrats and moderates are engaging in political conversation.

How about impact? On Jan. 6, a sitting president publicly denied the results of an election. To a worked up crowd he said, “We will never give up. We will never concede. We will stop the steal!” The socially aware speaker should have considered both context and the impact of his words before speaking. The impact of Trump’s words were deadly.

When emotional, sarcastic or even violent political speech takes center stage, conversations defined by reason and inquiry are muffled or sometimes even silenced. I highly doubt MAGA tirades are the type of speech Jefferson had in mind.

In North Idaho in particular, the complete dominance of right-wing expression has a chilling effect on Democratic participation in the conversation.

Here’s where we can consider the impact: When a Democrat or Moderate feels like their political views might spark contention with someone who embraces violence-tinged rhetoric (F-Joe Biden, for example?), they stay silent. People who feel entitled to walk around armed to the teeth don’t improve things. Would you feel comfortable having a political conversation that could turn tense if the other party was armed?

This environment isn’t healthy, and it certainly doesn’t promote “Reason and effectual inquiry.”

As we all learn through trial and error how to be adults in political conversation, it’s important to start with mutual respect.

Understand the context around what we are talking about. Know the impact of your words. And understand that your audience might be more diverse than first assumed.

With this mature approach to political conversation, we can all work toward a more perfect union.

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Evan Koch is chairman of the Kootenai County Democrats.