Friday, August 20, 2010

Uncivil Dialogue, Racism and the Tea Party Movement

I recently stepped over the line and used the 'N' word to lampoon a recent post on the Net. I was reminded that there was no acceptable context in which the 'N' word was allowed. But that wasn't the part that bothered me; it was the nature of the post I should have taken issue with in the first place. The post was making fun of the Tea Party in what I consider an uncivil manner and I think it was my anger that caused me to take it too far rather than recognize what my objections were and discuss them rationally. In that spirit I decided to reproduce a conversation I had several months ago about this very subject.

I had responded to a post about an article in the Huffington Post written by Greg Grandin. This article can be read at:

Here are some of my comments as I posted them at that time. To preface these comments, let me say simply that the piece by Grandin was referencing a study published on the Net claiming that many members of the Tea Party were racist. I have edited my comments only to avoid revealing any identities or comments that were not relevant.

I found this piece overwhelming but please indulge me a few comments. I found the rhetoric inflammatory. I continue to beg for civility in discussions about the complex issues of our times. To me, this was not civil discourse regardless who wrote it.

Calling a movement racist is too easy and accomplishes nothing other than anger. What intelligent person among us would think that racism is absent from *any* party in the US? Whether anyone is racist is the same as asking whether one is an alcoholic or, even better, when does a cucumber become a pickle. It's a matter of degree, a value between 0.0 and 1; not binary, a value either 0 or 1. We're all racists to some degree, so let's get over it and leave it out of our discussions.

Glenn Beck is a self-proclaimed entertainer. He openly admits that he does what makes his company money. Those paying attention to anything Glenn Beck espouses are simply ignorant and should be made aware of what game Beck is playing - not spat upon. I am curious however to find that the person Beck admires most is Tyler Perry (perhaps this was a joke?).

I believe much of the vitriol is fomented by the frustration of having a dysfunctional government. I too hate the need to have the government step in but the current state of our affairs leaves us no choice. I worked for the VA and know firsthand how badly our government runs things. In regards to taking more effective steps to change our government (short of revolution), writing inflammatory exposition doesn't help - but maybe that's the only stuff people will read. Yellow press isn't new is it?
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In response to my comments the original poster pointed me to the following link which supposedly gave legitimacy to the previously mentioned survey. Here is the link:

and upon referring me to the link, stated, "You are right, using the racist label without the data to back it up is too easy. However, when the data is there, then let's call a spade a spade."

Here is my response:

OK, I'll take the bait. I have no problems with discussing and writing about any issues. My main objection to the Grandin piece was the inflammatory language but let's go ahead and look at how he handled the survey from the University of Washington.

Whenever any academic has gone public with data, the first question that crosses my mind is, has the data been published in an academic journal? If it hasn't then I immediately suspect loss of integrity and wonder how much my colleague got paid for his/her soul.

When I looked at the page you referred us to, I found no indication that the survey has appeared in an academic journal. If you read the interview with the survey's author, Dr. Parker, which is at the link entitled "survey methodology posted here" a few relevant and interesting tid bits come up.

When asked about his credentials Dr. Parker notes his academic achievements with the following statement. "On the principal investigator front, I conducted the California Patriotism Pilot Study (2002), from which I published a paper in Political Research Quarterly." Bingo! This is when the register rings for me - this means something. But where is there any indication that the current survey has been submitted / or is even being considered for submission for publication? Since that answer isn't found, let's look for the closest answer found later in the interview.

The following question was asked of Dr. Parker regarding his survey results.

"Putting it all together, what can we safely and confidently conclude about those who identify with the tea party movement and those who do not? Are their attitudes fundamentally different from other whites, from the American population as a whole, and, if so, how so?"

Dr Parker responded:

"One way in which to view these preliminary results is that we should remain cautious, and not jump to firm conclusions. I say this, first, because the sampling frame I use differs from, say, recent polls conducted by Pew, Qunnipiac, the Washington Post, and USA Today/Gallup. Indeed, my results are relevant only to the states in which the survey was conducted, four of which (NV, MO, GA, and NC) voted for the Republican presidential candidate in at least seven of the last ten election cycles. Perhaps this is why my results appear at variance with national polls."

I’m left wondering about the degree of confidence Dr. Parker has in his own preliminary results. How about you? Nevertheless, in the face of the author’s own caution about what the survey means, this is how Grandin's piece introduced the survey.

"A debate over a recent University of Washington poll helps us understand why the movement is racist no matter which slogans and symbols it chooses to use. The poll found that support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment."

I understand your concerns. But I submit that Grandin's piece has not done justice to the claim that the Tea Party Movement is racist. Would you feel comfortable referring to this piece when having a rational discussion with a Tea Party'er?
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A few more exchanges were made and I finally stated the following:

I keep recalling a scene from Halberstam's "The Children" which is an excellent book about the civil rights movement. Jim Lawson was confronted by a hate-filled white man spewing vitriol. He let the hate roll off his back and began talking to the man. They discovered a common interest in motorcycles. The moment transcended from an inhuman hate-filled schism to a plane where two people were communicating. Lawson's training had prevailed. Inflammatory rhetoric does nothing to bridge the gap to our racist (ignorant) brothers and sisters. I encourage the adoption of strategies that can lead to constructive relationships with people filled with hate. Name calling and labeling are not part of that strategy.
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In conclusion, I have learned from my mindless response in which I used the 'N' word. I apologize. I was taking a joke to the extreme and it was uncalled for. I should have complained at the joke in the first place. We cannot make progress with uncivil dialogue.