Being able to agree to disagree is a lost hope

April 13, 2004|By Susan Reimer

THEY SAY you should never talk religion or politics with strangers. I should have listened.

In the past month, I've written about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and a grassroots organization of mothers who oppose the re-election of President Bush. The reaction to both columns has been so angry and venomous that I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head.

We have a saying in the newspaper business to comfort ourselves in times like these, and it goes something like this: For every angry person who writes or calls, there are 10 happy people who don't. Happy readers just go about their business, while angry readers are angry enough to do something.

I have drawn little comfort from this newsroom maxim these past weeks, because the angry people do not just disagree with me.

They have wished me harm. And wished my children harm, too.

They have ridiculed my appearance, my marriage and my presumed lack of religious faith.

I've been told I am not entitled to an opinion on matters of national security or war and that I should go back to "baking cookies and driving carpools" and leave these matters "to the men we elected."

And, though I have a son at a military academy, I have been told that I am no patriot because I would not willingly send him to war as so many women did during World War II and Vietnam.

There were a few reasoned letters and phone calls from readers. One in particular made me think for a long time that perhaps my view of President Bush's sliding popularity might be colored by the points of view of the women I hang out with.

But most of those who wrote or called went straight for the gut.

After I wrote that The Passion of the Christ was so relentlessly violent that I couldn't recommend it for adults, let alone children, so many people wrote to say they were praying for my soul that I felt my feet leave the ground.

I welcome any prayers on my behalf, but not the accompanying assumption that I am a "godless [expletive]."

(I had 12 years of perfect attendance in Sunday school, and I have the decorative pins to prove it. And if it isn't me getting my family out of bed and into church on Sunday morning, I'd like to know who that woman is.)

After I wrote that the president should fear this expanding group of mothers who oppose him, because these are multitasking women who are used to getting things done, angry readers wrote to say they felt sorry for my children because they were being raised by such a liberal mother.

(This is a common theme in letters from readers. My children, I'm sure, feel sorry enough for themselves, but perhaps I should put together a support group for them from among these readers.)

I thought I had learned to take this kind of criticism in stride. But when one reader wrote, after the column on The Passion, that Hitler was wrong about a lot of things, but he wasn't wrong about the Jews, I grew alarmed.

And when, after the column on Mothers Opposing Bush, a male caller left a virulent, two-minute voicemail threatening my daughter, I felt sick.

These people are out there, gentle reader. These are your neighbors or your friends or the people next to you in the grocery store check-out line. People so angry - why, I am not sure - that "agreeing to disagree" is a lost hope.

We no longer can speak reasonably to each other on topics about which there is bound to be disagreement. We don't counter an argument, we raise the stakes by breaking out every weapon in an arsenal of venom and personal attack. We go straight to nuclear retaliation.

I suppose I could safely retreat to writing amusing domestic anecdotes or gentle-toned poems about gardening, but I believe that readers of this column, many of them women, care about more than just the price of eggs.

Cookie baking and car pooling notwithstanding, we, too, have a stake in the future of this country and that stake is our children - including the two everybody is so busy feeling sorry for.

Because it is an election year, political passions are running high. The war in Iraq has compounded this acrimony. But I believe Laura Bush is just as sick at heart about the deaths of those American boys as I am, even if she has no sons to risk.

Have we learned nothing from those who find our politics and our religion so hateful that they are willing to die a martyr's death for the chance to kill as many of us as they can?

I humbly suggest that we all dial it back a notch. Let us give free speech a rest and resolve to go to church on Sunday and vote in November. And to love our neighbors in the meantime.

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