Want to Bridge Our Divide? Here’s Language to Avoid.

From a Washington Post column by Gary Abernathy headlined “Serious about bridging our divide? Here’s some language to avoid.”:

When discussing hot-button issues, it’s easy to score points with the respective bases on the left and right by vilifying the other side. What’s more challenging is standing up for your beliefs while still respecting, and even empathizing with, those who disagree.

Anyone sincerely interested in bridging our great political divide should consider modifying how they discuss the most contentious topics. A good first step would be avoiding some of the most accusatory and divisive language — the conversation-stoppers. Every individual’s beliefs are unique, of course, and each of us can only do our best to appreciate differing opinions, but here’s where I, at least, would begin:

Abortion

People who oppose abortion generally share an honest belief that human life begins at conception and is entitled to legal protections. Language that opponents should avoid: calling them patriarchal Bible-thumpers trying to control someone else’s body or claiming that they care more about lumps of tissue than the lives of women.

People who support the right to abortion sincerely believe that the decision on whether to have a child is up to the pregnant woman herself, sometimes in consultation with a doctor. They generally believe that a fetus does not meet the scientific or legal definition of a human being, and that no one should be forced to give birth. Language that opponents should avoid: referring to them as murderers or baby-killers.

Guns

People who oppose gun control believe the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, that gun violence should be blamed on the people who pull the trigger and that limiting assault weapons is a slippery slope leading to a ban on all firearms. Language that opponents should avoid: calling them pawns of the National Rifle Association, or accessories to murder with blood on their hands.

People who support gun control believe that the Second Amendment grants the right to possess muskets in an era when the government needed citizen militias, and the primary reason behind rising gun violence is too-easy access to weapons capable of causing mass casualties in a few seconds. Language that opponents should avoid: claiming that they want to trample on the Constitution and prevent people from defending their homes or participate in hunting or shooting sports.

Gender issues

People who believe in traditional gender definitions and resist any notion that others can choose their pronouns or identify as something other than their sex at birth often do so because of customs grounded in religion. Others might simply think that changing gender identity is unnatural. These people don’t think they or their children should be forced to accommodate progressives’ ideas about gender. Language that opponents should avoid: calling them bigoted, ignorant or hateful.

People who support changing attitudes toward gender believe that human beings know who they are and how they want to live, and forcing people to suppress their true selves is discriminatory, harmful to their mental health and a denial of basic civil rights. Language that opponents should avoid: claiming they support genital mutilation, or accusing them of being “groomers” and trying to lead children into subversive lifestyles.

Trump supporters

People who continue to support former president Donald Trump generally do so not only because they believe in the policies he espouses — as do many who are disillusioned with Trump himself — but because he represents a traditional America First mind-set in which freedom of expression is not bound by political correctness. They have sincere concerns about our voting system and do not think Trump was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which they see as the act of a small fringe group. Language opponents should avoid: accusing them of being racists or members of a Trump-worshiping cult, or claiming that they represent a clear and present danger to democracy.

People who adamantly oppose Trump believe he is not fit to be president based in part on what they consider his overall lack of character. Many consider him a racist, and fear that he poses a threat to democracy based on his repeated insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulent, leading to the Jan. 6 riot — which they believe met the definition of an insurrection as an attack on the peaceful transfer of political power. Language that opponents should avoid: accusing them of being elitists or part of a “deep state” conspiracy.

To be sure, some of the claims in the above examples may well apply to segments of extremists on either side. But the vast majority of Americans holding different views on contentious issues do not deserve the accusations and insults routinely hurled their way. By resisting the tired, divisive rhetoric found in partisan playbooks or vitriolic social media, maybe we can start talking with each other instead of at each other — a worthy objective as we embark on a new year together.

Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Post, is a freelance writer based in the Cincinnati, Ohio, region.

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