He calls me stupid

The war, and our inability to disagree on it, has been hurting our relationship.

Published April 16, 2003 7:39PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

The war with Iraq has exacerbated a nagging problem in my relationship with my boyfriend of four years. He's politically conservative, I'm politically liberal. This difference has always been somewhat of a nit for us. However, the war -- and our seeming inability to rationally discuss our differing perspectives toward it -- has really increased the tension level at home.

I have no problem agreeing to disagree. I find the variety of perspectives people have to be one of the wonders of humanity, and a way to learn. He has a harder time agreeing to disagree.

The situation is made worse by my reaction to how he discusses his point of view (I shy away from raised voices and conflict), and his lack of tolerance toward my point of view. He peppers his arguments with words I find offensive and take personally, such as "stupid" (as in "stupid liberals"), and he tends to have a very black-and-white worldview (if you're not for the United States taking out Saddam, you're part of the problem). Good vs. evil. Good vs. bad. Us vs. them. Sigh.

We're trying to find ways to productively deal with these differences, other than make the subject off-limits for discussion. But I am starting to think that this is a significant glimpse into our potential future -- that he will never learn to tolerate or appreciate my viewpoint as I do his. I can't envision a future where one person "wins" all the arguments simply because the other person finds it too painful to engage. Is there any hope? Any resources you can point us to?

Heavy Sighs in Minnesota

Dear Heavy Sighs,

Do I ever know what you're talking about.

At Salon, I am exposed to a good bit of sophisticated political discussion. I don't participate much, but I absorb a lot of high-flown talk, and when I go home I have a tendency to spout off in pretty impressive form.

At least I thought it was pretty impressive. To my chagrin, my wife recently ordered a 12-cassette course from the Learning Company, "Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning," taught by professor David Zarefsky of Northwestern University. I think she intends to neutralize me.

It's not that I'm mean. It's just that, like many other people, I tend to forget who I'm talking to when I'm talking politics. In my defense (are you reading this, sweetie?) I must say that it's part of my job to spot factual errors and inconsistencies in reasoning, so when I go home and she says "Gee, this war is terrible," I'm already looking for the lede, the nut graf, the argument: What do you mean, the war is terrible? What precisely does that mean? Civilian casualties, mission creep, political victory for Bush?

So take a tip from my wife: Firmly grasp your boyfriend's lapels and remind him who he's talking to. Remind him that he's talking to his girlfriend. Remind him that his girlfriend is a liberal. Ask him if he thinks his girlfriend is stupid. Often it's enough just to be reminded that, right or wrong, there are human feelings involved.

But maybe what we really need is a set of Geneva Conventions for home-based rhetorical warfare. Foremost among those conventions would be the safeguarding of innocent civilians. You, as an adherent to the liberal philosophy, but not an architect of policy, are such an innocent civilian. You might live in the neighborhood of your boyfriend's enemy, but you are not the enemy. Rhetorical warfare should be waged only on legitimate targets: that is, specific policies, their underlying philosophies, and their immediate perpetrators. The term "stupid liberals" is like a cluster bomb; it hits all kinds of innocents, including you.

What we all need to do, if we love this country, is take a deep breath and think before we talk.

If that doesn't work, let me know, and I'll ask my wife if those tapes were any good.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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