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Toothless, Cousin Loving

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Photo: David Mark/Pixabay

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

Last month, while the nation was rapt with millionaire heir Hugh Culverhouse’s heroic tale portraying himself as a defender of reproductive rights, some of us in Alabama dunked our cornbread in our buttermilk and pondered when national news might catch up to our local reporters, whose coverage offered a different narrative. 

In June, Culverhouse duped his way into the hearts of progressives by claiming the University of Alabama voted to return his $26.5 million gift to the law school. The reason according to Culverhouse? He called on students to boycott the institution in opposition to Alabama’s restrictive abortion ban. 

Of course, his story went viral. Here was a perfect morality play for a nation that loves to hate the South: A white savior single-handedly railing against a backwards state. 

Turns out, the University of Alabama and Culverhouse were long locked in disagreements about how his money ought to be spent. Emails show UA decided to return the money four days before Culverhouse’s abortion PR stunt. Their reason? Let me borrow from my dad’s family’s favorite phrase for the tight cling of the wealthy and power hungry: UA was dealing with a dingleberry.

I’d bet most folks who saw those early stories continue to believe Culverhouse’s version—even after reading additional reporting. The facts bore out a truth that simply didn’t fit with the narrative of Alabama most folks prefer to believe. 


Here’s a story that captures how I figure everyone thinks of the South:

It’s 2009, my first day of graduate school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. 

I’m 24, somewhat foolishly pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry, newly transplanted from Birmingham to a city where I know no one. Many of my peers have arrived from prestigious universities or positions as Real Writers or with a partner to keep them company during the depressing months ahead. 

In my first class, a professor asks us to include our favorite novel from high school in our introductions. When it’s my turn, I offer two: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Some other folks are tossing around unreadable, existential tomes that broody college students carry spine-up in their messenger bags so I’m thinking I’ve played it safe. The point is, with the others, the professor has tossed softball questions about form or the questionable morality of the author and how we separate their lives from their work.

To me, the professor asks: “Homeschooled kid?”

I shake my head, not sure where we’re heading.

She frowns. “Did you board out-of-state?” 

“I went to public school,” I say. 

“In Alabama?” she asks. 

“In Madison, a suburb of Huntsville.” Until this point, I’ve lived in Alabama my whole life. 

I scan the faces of the others in this room—some of them as young or younger than I am, many of them older with a great deal more life experience than even this professor. Potatoes with buttons shoved in the heads for eyes have been more expressive. 

The professor and I share a belabored back-and-forth about how I came to know these texts (summer reading assignments for English classes) and whether or not my peers also enjoyed, or more importantly, understood them (they did; most of them were and are much brighter than I am). Instead of accepting my experience and focussing on the novels I’d offered to discussion, there is open indignation and continued interrogation about the validity of my education and whether or not I was an Alabama outlier (I’m not).

I get the feeling it would be easier for me to don the mask of a dimwit and say, “Just kidding, y’all. I only read the pictures in my Paw-paw’s Bible.”

(An important geographical note here: We are in the South.)

Later, I’ll realize this indignation is born of an affront to the false narratives these folks have internalized about themselves as culturally and intellectually superior in relation to the ignorant Southerner. 

Right now, I’m only aware this encounter is lasting longer than any of the others.

“Huh,” the professor says. I can tell she doesn’t totally trust me, but at least the encounter is over. She moves to the next person, but I’m not listening. 

I’m wondering if I am some backwoods imposter. 

I’m thinking about Flannery O’Connor, how she showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1945, and when the director couldn’t understand her Georgia lilt, she wrote on a piece of paper, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. May I come to the Writers Workshop?” 

Accounts of O’Connor sitting silently in those workshops during her masters program and eventually stunning all those yankee dingleberries with her brilliance when she submitted her prose have long quelled any sense of inferiority I have about where I come from.

In this moment, though, I realize I am not going to be anything like O’Connor. 

This class can make perfect sense of the words I’m saying. 

They just don’t believe me.


Luckily, I wasn’t on the official roster, and when I didn’t make it into the class, I was relieved not to be in a semester-long position of constantly defending my background or home.

I should have considered it a primer, or better, a premonition for the years to come.

In a rare recording of O’Connor, you can listen to her read the essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” which includes the line: “Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

This was 1960. By now a famous and acclaimed author, O’Connor was criticizing modern critical and scholarly attitudes toward popular realist fiction and the limitations of narratives that lacked mystery and imagination. Of course, she was also making a joke about misconceptions of the South more broadly. That’s why the line resonates with me each time I come across it. 

Coming to the defense of Alabama and the South at large is pretty much what I’ve been up to in the decade since that first awkward introduction to literary academia. 

Back then, my protests amounted to a lot of blood-boiled “but, buts” at parties and in class when people offered misinformed ideas about the South. Here’s a for instance: In a workshop, a classmate explained her choice to have a fictional character live in a trailer to show the reader the protagonist was ignorant and poor without having to say so. When I suggested she might be using classist stereotypes to incorrectly caricaturize, the professor came to her defense. 

“It’s funny,” he said. And that was that. 

In recent years, as a journalist, many of the stories I pitch to magazines outside the South use this framework: “Everyone thinks X about the South but Y is true.” It’s an angle that’s allowed me to write about artists, activists, politicians, whatever. I’m beginning to suspect I’ll get sick of this framework long before I run out of topics. 

In communities online and at home, I’ve sought a kind of support group for Southerners who give a shit about examining what Southern identity really is, who are comfortable wrestling with the complexity of this place, celebrating what makes it so wonderful while also raging against what makes it a hellscape. 

A few weeks ago, on Twitter, I asked, “What’s the most condescending thing someone has said to you about living in / being from the South?” I shared my grad school “boarding school / homeschool” moment. 

Hundreds of people replied with results varying from hilarious to odd to downright sad. There were the clichés—lots of jokes about bare feet and toothless, cousin loving. There were elitist culinary digs about squirrel soup or possum dumplings or fried everything. There were comments about the South as the only place where racism thrives or where poverty abounds because of the population’s incompetence and not the pitfalls of capitalism and extractive, racist labor practices in which the North continues to benefit from the South, a relationship as old as America herself. And, my favorite, there were strange assumptions about what might hurt our feelings, like this, courtesy of a guy named Bob Lynch, a sports writer and self-described Waffle House enthusiast:

“Met a Vermonter at a hostel in Munich. He brought up his admiration for Abraham Lincoln in conversation then apologized because he worried that mentioning him would offend me.”

Taken individually, these offenses might seem minor, and any hurt feelings an overreaction in a world full of real trauma for oppressed folks. Collectively, though, the conversation illuminated a more invasive and dangerous pattern in our storytelling in both art and news media. The most populous region of the United States is, contrary to popular belief, not a monolith of barefoot, cis-gendered, hetero white folks.

Stereotyping Southerners reduces our understanding of the South to a crude representation that is both sociologically false and imaginatively dead.

Here’s what folks don’t understand when they readily accept these narratives as truth: They give more power to the (mostly) white men who run this state, the very people who fund or write our oppressive laws, ensuring those dudes and their wealthy offspring and cohorts will continue to hold power. Every time a law creeps from our nightmares to their statehouse or every time Alabama lawmakers ignore very real issues of corruption and inequity, folks outside of Alabama flippantly suggest the rest of the U.S. give us the boot. Little cartoon maps of the U.S. with a blacked-out Alabama get passed around the internet as if we have become the missing tooth in our redneck uncle’s smile. 

By dismissing this state in such a way, well-intended progressives are ignoring the people who call the South home who are Black, brown, queer, trans. In that way, their self-righteous reactions are born of the same racist elitism as the very laws they say they’re criticizing.

They’re assuming there aren’t people on the ground working toward solutions against or around or to upend a system that benefits the few.

This matters beyond Southerners feeling unheard or misrepresented because funding—political, nonprofit, corporate—is so often determined by people who’ve bought into these narratives and see Alabama as a lost cause. We’ve heard that from activists from as far back as the Civil Rights Movement. (Luckily for the U.S., Black civil rights leaders believed in and fought for the inherent dignity of all Alabamians.) We’ve seen Democratic candidates in Alabama left high and dry even when on-the-ground organizers are making headway in spite of gerrymandered districts and voter suppression that make real representation here damn near impossible. 

We’ve also seen a Democrat narrowly win a Senate seat by the margin of a mouse fart, as my dad likes to say, against an alleged child predator. So yes, of course, there’s work to be done. 

Meanwhile—and this one’s real important—white supremacy runs amok outside of the South and in Southern progressive spaces because white progressives have adopted the notion that racism exists as a caricature. Whenever power structures in progressive spaces—politics, academia, the media, wherever—are challenged, there’s much defensiveness and pearl-clutching and rarely an open acknowledgement of a need for change. Look at what happened recently the Jackson Free Press, and the women of color calling attention to their poor treatment by leadership.

If our collective understanding of a racist wasn’t that of a southern bubba in a pick-up truck or a good old boy in a seersucker suit in a boardroom, then we might be better at truly examining our nation’s oppressive history and how that history informs our power structures today. Here’s a for instance: When I was in Portland recently, I saw way more Black Lives Matter signs than I saw Black people. That could be because of the neighborhoods I was in, but I’ve got a hunch that’s because Oregon is the only state to have ever banned Black residents, and today, Black people who do live in Portland—the place most of us consider the holy ground for progressive culture—report high instances of labor and housing discrimination.

So how do we have such a skewed perspective? The folks who benefit from the ego boost of false Southern narratives (yes, the dingleberries) often control narrative. They choose our movies, our novels, our headlines. They determine whose lives are centered in our stories and whose lives ought to exist on the periphery. 

And we Southerners, in turn, consume these stories and risk internalizing the belief we are less than, unworthy and eternally hopeless. 

We’re told we deserve our high rates of impoverished communities. We’re told we deserve to have the worst schools. We’re told we deserve our shitty mortality rates because we should die off for continuing to elect people who write laws that undeniably stunt progress and equity for all. 

It’s no wonder we grow weary or worse, apathetic. It’s no wonder we worship football and Jesus. At least we can be champions. At least we can be loved.

To the great benefit and convenience of those in power, these narratives do not allow for the complicated ways our political and economic systems (backed by so many of our faith leaders) are built to ensure these folks continue to hold power.

It’s easier to sanctimoniously imagine us Southerners pissing away life than to accept this truth: The modern horrors of the South aren’t unique to the South, and what is exacerbated here—including oppressive law—is often connected to national attitudes and political strategies and to our collective history.

In the poem, “Everybody in America Hate the South,” the Alabama poet Jacqueline Trimble writes:

America ought to say
thank you, Miss South, thank you for being like
Jesus and taking on the sins of the whole country.
I wish everybody would listen to her. I bet they won’t.


“We are the land of the backward, we are hicks, we lack the sophistication to see two sides to an argument.”

That’s what Culverhouse said to media about the impetus for his family’s large donation. He claimed they hoped their money might change the state’s stereotypes. 

This quote appeared in dozens of early news stories, and a number of folks I knew back at UNCW shared those articles.

I wrote to some of them, suggesting they consider reading the local news coverage, including a history of Culverhouse’s anti-abortion political donations. Many of them simply deleted their posts without sharing with their (sometimes large) social media audiences they’d be fooled into thinking this man a hero.

O’Connor often lamented comments from Southerners who told her there weren’t Bible salesmen on the sexual prowl for one-legged intellectuals or murderers lurking along backroads awaiting self-righteous grannies. She lamented northern readers, too, who also assumed she was a kind of literary journalist, believing the eccentricity of her characters to be an exclusive representation of Southern identity. 

All along, she’d declared she was a writer of fiction, not a journalist. Yet, she often got to deeper truths about this place than any nonfiction writer might hope to achieve. If folks believed O’Connor’s portraits to be wholly true, then, and I’m glad she’s too dead to read this, even that would be an improvement over the view we have of Southerners now.

Instead, reductive stereotypes abound. By tapping into the notion we’re a state full of hicks, Culverhouse stretched out his hand and asked, once again, for everyone to climb aboard a high horse where they might all comfortably look down on this place. 

And that doesn’t do anyone any good. Because Alabama—same as the rest of the South, same as America—is deeply flawed. 

To change it, we have to see things as they are.

Katherine Webb-Hehn in a freelance multimedia journalist in the South. She’s the recipient of fellowships from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Her work has been honored, awarded or selected by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Institute of Nonprofit News, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Longreads and others. She lives with her husband, son and a pup in Birmingham, Alabama. Follow her on Twitter @KAWebb_.


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Climate Activism Could Be Swaying Public Opinion In The US

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The March for Science on April 22, 2017 combined calls for scientific integrity and climate action. Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP

Climate activists walked out of classrooms and workplaces in more than 150 countries on Friday, Sept. 20 to demand stronger action on climate change. Mass mobilizations like this have become increasingly common in recent years.

I’m a scholar of environmental communication who examines how people become engaged with solving dilemmas such as climate change, and how activism motivates others to take action. A new study I worked on suggests that large rallies, such as this youth-led Climate Strike, could be influencing public opinion.

Conflicting signs

For anyone in the U.S. who has been following climate change news for years, it could be easy to conclude that these protests don’t have an impact. After all, no major environmental legislation has been signed into law in this country in decades.

Further, in 2016 a near-majority of U.S. voters elected a president who rejects the scientific evidence on climate change.

On the other hand, concern about climate change is rising. So is media coverage about global warming, notably including CNN’s seven-hour town hall on the topic with 10 Democratic presidential candidates.

To see whether rallies, such as the Global Climate Strike are contributing to this change in public opinion in a measurable way, I partnered with Pennsylvania State University psychologist Janet K. Swim and Michael L. Lengieza, a graduate student. We collected public opinion data before and after major protests.

Seeing activists in a less negative light

We conducted surveys to assess public opinion before and after the March for Science – which had a wide-ranging agenda that included climate change – and the 2017 People’s Climate March, which took place on back-to-back Saturdays in April 2017. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the main protests in Washington, as affiliated marches occurred in other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

Nearly 600 people around the country, including some who had heard very little or even nothing at all about the mobilizations, answered our series of detailed questions. We tried to gauge their perceptions of climate activists and faith in humanity’s ability to come together on issues like climate change.

Half of the survey-takers completed their survey right before the first protest and the other half did it after the second one. Both groups represented broad ranges in age, education level and political beliefs.

The responses suggested that many Americans may have changed their opinion about the climate change movement around that time – in the spring of 2017.

For instance, the percentage who viewed climate activists as “aggressive” fell by 10 percentage points, from 74 percent to 64 percent. Similarly, survey respondents viewed activists as less “arrogant” and “dictatorial” after the protests occurred.

We consider this finding important because other research has suggested that people who view climate activists in this negative manner are more motivated to speak out against policies aimed at slowing the pace of global warming, such as the two carbon tax initiatives that voters have rejected in Washington state despite its Democratic majority.

Feeling less pessimistic about the future

Although most survey-takers said they had heard about the protests, few actually knew someone who had participated in one. Wondering whether the way that media covered these events might influence how people reacted, we looked into whether Americans who prefer liberal-leaning media outlets, such as MSNBC, reacted differently than those who rely on conservative-leaning media, such as Fox News.

We detected some interesting and unexpected patterns.

Before we looked at the data, we thought that differences in the media coverage might further the political polarization of climate change. We were surprised when we saw that the marches appeared to have the opposite effect.

In particular, the protests may have made consumers of conservative-leaning news more hopeful. Before them, consumers of conservative-leaning news were more likely to say they doubted the ability of humanity to work together on big problems like climate change.

After the marches, fewer people of all kinds expressed pessimism. In particular, consumers of conservative media became less likely to agree to statements like this one: “People are too selfish to cooperate and to fix big problems.” Before the protests, 60 percent of them agreed with that statement. Afterward, only 45 percent did.

The limits to this influence

Even so, the mobilizations did not seem to sway public opinion in every way that the organizers might have hoped. In particular, despite the large numbers participating, the two waves of protests did not appear to have any measurable impact on convincing Americans that taking community action on climate change was a normal or common thing for people to do.

Specifically, there was no change in the perceived number of people in their community or in the entire country that survey-takers believed engaged in collective action, such as environmental activism or voting for politicians that support environmental issues.

We suspect the people we surveyed did not consider the marchers to be similar to average people – like themselves.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether these shifts in public perceptions translate into shifts in consumer purchasing habits and public policy.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Nathaniel Geiger, Assistant Professor of Communication Science, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Is Rural America Having a Moment in Democratic Policy Proposals?

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At the Iowa State Fair, candidates were everywhere. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr, Creative Commons

The 2020 Presidential election is not likely to hinge on nuanced rural policy positions and party platforms. That doesn’t seem to matter to the women and men running for the Democratic nomination, many of whom are campaigning hard for big investments and jobs in rural infrastructure, agriculture, clean energy and health care.

When it comes to presidential elections, many people feel that rural issues get ignored . Mainstream media coverage of campaigns and voter opinion tends to focus on the horserace between political parties, geographic divisions and the moving weathervane of “electability.” Rural topics, with the exception of commercial and corporate agriculture, traditionally don’t get much mention.

Things seems different this year. Last week I spent a lot of time reading and comparing statements and policy positions among the diverse field of Democratic candidates. Unlike any time I’ve seen in 20 years of rural advocacy and economic development work, many of the candidates are developing serious and innovative rural policy ideas that deserve more attention.

A large number of campaigns are embracing infrastructure and telecommunications improvements in rural communities, for instance, and are trying to differentiate themselves through specific budget and policy goals. Numerous candidates are calling for aggressive changes in the health-care sector to address a crisis in rural health care facilities and availability. Most of them support agricultural reforms and conservation programs that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

As we were compiling our initial set of candidate position reporting at the Daily Yonder, there was a flurry of activity on rural issues just last Wednesday and Thursday. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) all released comprehensive, detailed rural economic development platforms while campaigning in rural Iowa. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill designed to address climate change through conservation-based farming practices, renewing the Civilian Conservation Corps and scaling up clean energy systems in rural communities. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, IN) unveiled his plan for improving rural healthcare and later released a comprehensive rural-policy plan.

A few of the innovative proposals that stick out for innovation and scope include the following:

  • ARPA-Ag, a science and innovation platform to decrease greenhouse gas emission from agriculture, Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Modeled after the U. S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the public-sector research and development initiative that helped create the internet and supercomputers, and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E that led to clean energy innovations during the Obama Administration, Inslee’s ARPA-Ag would attempt to decarbonize agriculture.  ARPA-Ag would expandd federal investment in “research, development, demonstration and deployment” of climate-friendly farming practices, while also reducing climate emission from the agricultural input sector. Inslee would also create a Next-Generation Clean Energy Extension Service to share the results, knowledge and resources for participating in ARPA-Ag and related efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Warren’s $85 billion rural broadband proposal states that, “One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet.” The package includes funding, incentives and regulatory changes that will allow public sector internet providers to compete head-to-head with private services. In addition, funding will be available to expand service to rural communities currently being ignored by the private sector. Eligible entities will be local governments, Native American tribes, rural electric cooperatives and rural telephone cooperatives among others.  Warren’s plan is to set-aside at least $5 billion funding for Native American tribal governments.  The $85 billion broadband plan seeks to address the rural internet access gap. “According to the FCC, in 2017, 26.4% of people living in rural areas and 32.1% of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps), compared to 1.7% in urban areas,” Warren’s plan states.

  • Rural Future Partnership Fund,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand is proposing $50 billion in public financing to fund multi-year, flexible, block grants to local communities with comprehensive rural revitalization strategies. Funds would be available for rural water systems, affordable housing, local food efforts, rural entrepreneurship and other rural economic development needs. The funding will target projects in rural communities with a history of persistent poverty, along with prioritizing cooperatively-owned enterprises. Gillibrand’s rural economic development plans also include the creation of a “Rural Future Corps” that identifies and trains rural young people and public servants, as well as supporting arts and cultural heritage-based efforts at job creation and local economic development.

REAP, the Renewable Energy for America Program, is a popular grant and loan program that supports installation and operation of renewable energy systems serving farmers and rural small business owners. Senator Booker recently proposed a $1 billion expansion of REAP as part of his Climate Stewardship Act. The program, in operation since 2009 with limited budgets averaging from $10-$50 million per year, has already been responsible for more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of renewable electricity production by participants, according to USDA. The Booker REAP expansion would provide a short-term boost to the already growing rural deployment of solar, wind and geothermal energy production. REAP expansion would likely result in huge increases in rural solar installations and energy efficiency improvements for farmers and rural small businesses throughout the nation.

I don’t want to pretend that a rural policy position paper is going to lead to the presidency, let alone get passed and implemented. Bold, aggressive policy proposals to expand rural economic development like these face a long and politically driven set of challenges.

The coalition of limited government activists, tax-cut proponents and white Christian conservatives that make up the bulk of the Republican Party are not likely to jump for joy. Within the Democratic Party, there is a large contingent of voices that repeatedly call for caution, moderation and fiscal conservatism. “How are we going to pay for it?” is often the mantra of the pundit and lobbyist class.

Still, while partisan and electoral politics are an ever-present barrier, rural people and organizations should take note that their consistent calls for more funding, resources and attention are working. Huge investments in rural broadband have been embraced by all of the Democrats in the race. (Broadband is one of the few rural development areas that the Trump administration has also supported.) Nearly all the candidates have called for aggressive antitrust action to curtail the market power of corporate agribusiness, a clear rejection of the hands-off approach during the Obama administration. The rural hospital closure crisis is being mentioned on the nationally televised debate stage. The climate crisis is being treated as a serious issue, with a “just transition” to cleaner agriculture, forestry and mining practices in the spotlight.

I’m not sure how to take these developments other than to report them as words on the page. Electoral politics, in my opinion, is all-too-often an incredibly important but ultimately frustrating popularity contest void of actual substance. Perhaps 2020 is going to be different, even if the innovative ideas for improving economies and quality-of-life in rural America is coming from the party that most mainstream political pundits describe as “urban.” Stay tuned.

Bryce Oates covers federal rural policy for the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Commentary: Immunizing Against Our Culture of Contempt

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In his first inaugural address in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," and he invoked "the better angels of our nature." Photo: Wikipedia

Today’s public discourse is a petri dish for breeding disgust for people with whom we disagree. Debates about healthcare issues affecting rural America are no exception.

From the left’s “basket of deplorables” to the right’s “send her back,” our public and private spaces have become infected with a culture of contempt. On too many days, I feel I am in a country I barely recognize. I don’t know if conservatives and liberals equally engage in contempt of the other, only that I hear too much of it from both sides.

Tim Size

I take little comfort when individuals say it’s not so bad, that we were more divided during the Civil War. As savage as those days were, Abraham Lincoln knew we could and must do better.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even while coming of age in the riot-torn ’60s, my evangelically conservative family would encourage me “to hate the sin but love the sinner.” And not dissimilarly, at the same time, the left made an icon of a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.

From Fox News to MSNBC, our airwaves are filled with voices competing to be the loudest and the most adept at ridiculing their opponents. The dominant narrative is not to address ideas but to reduce those with whom who we don’t agree to a position beneath contempt. Once we allow ourselves to hold someone in contempt, all that the best of our culture teaches us about how we are to relate and support each other goes out the window.

I have taken heart from individuals who have begun to name this problem and suggest solutions, such as Arthur Brooks, long-time president of a conservative think tank, as he wrote about “Our Culture of Contempt” in a recent issue of The New York Times: “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers–the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.”

If we are to reverse our country’s slide into increasingly entrenched and divided camps, we need to relearn how to productively talk about our differences instead of attacking the character, motive and personal attributes of the “other side.”

Brooks goes on to say that “each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible – no one has ever been hated into agreement–so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

For those of us working in health care, contempt is not theoretical. We seem increasingly less able to make progress on important issues as the rhetoric heats up and the attacks get more personal. Here are a few examples of current health care issues that seem too often to be dominated by attacks on those who hold an opposing opinion rather than the opinion itself.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Collaboration
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Dollars for Medicaid Expansion
  • Medicare for All
  • Race and Geography in Health Disparities
  • Vaccination and Anti-vaxxers

While I know that I have and still can readily discount those who disagree with me on each of these issues, I have renewed my commitment to keep my advocacy based on the facts and our organization’s aspirations, not on trying to tear down those who might disagree. Will you join me in this quest?

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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