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A few years ago, before our current concert of political cacophony began, I worked with an officer who used the word “Democrat” the way others would use “jerk” or “asshole.” “Some fucking Democrat took forever in the fuel pits so I couldn’t finish my flight!” At the time I really didn’t think much of it, being that I wasn’t a Democrat, and also because that the political volume in America wasn’t at 11 back then.
One thing that has definitely changed for the worse since then is the political mood, especially the sense of amity between Americans of different political views. Animosity has steadily built to where a plurality of Americans would be distraught if their child married someone from the other political party, for example. People now treat political differences with the same irrational emotions with which they used to treat race. This may have been a long time building, but today it’s reached a fever pitch.
Many workplaces today, both in and out of the military, have flat-screen TVs scattered about, be that in a break room or a ready room. Those TVs are often tuned to the most ostensibly neutral programming there is — news networks. After all, some people hate daytime dramas and some people hate sports, but who hates the news?
The supposed neutrality does no good, though. Invariably a story will appear that sets off one side of the political aisle or another. A story about yet another mass slaughter will trigger someone to say, “Great. Obama and his socialist buddies are going to try to take our guns away again.” A story about some local official denying a gay couple their marriage license will sometimes inspire someone to say, “Damn Jesus freaks need to mind their own business.”
Those people are either assuming that all the people around them share the same views, or they know that some of the people don’t and they are saying it anyway. Either way, it’s a mistake.
Chances are not everyone in the group feels the same way. While the military leans conservative, there are significant numbers of moderates, liberals, and every other political stripe. Bernie Sanders polled at 22% in a Military Times survey — in other words, more than 1 in 5 troops around you supported a socialist. You can think what you will about whether they are right or wrong, but people of different views are out there, and their political views are as sincerely held as yours.
In your view, your beliefs are sound, rational, and moral. That’s why you have those views. Every other person thinks the exact same thing about his or her views. Lest you think that your impromptu rant on the history of the Second Amendment or gun crime statistics are going to make someone see the light, keep in mind that people have a natural inclination to hold onto their views more tightly even when those views are challenged.
The people who agree with you already agree, and the people who don’t aren’t going to change their minds. When people discuss politics loudly and disrespectfully, they’re telling others that they aren’t in the same group as the speaker. For most people, political views reflect personal values. When someone we work with disparages our political views with casual insults, he’s telling us that he thinks our values are no good. While a political loudmouth at work may think he’s being funny, or even speaking for the group at large, often there’s a person left hurt or seething, and whether a debate breaks out or not, that professional relationship is damaged.
As happens anytime someone recommends that people consider the feelings of others or pipe down in general, some readers are likely screaming, “First Amendment!” or “Political Correctness!” either in their heads or aloud. No one’s infringing on your First Amendment rights, or telling you to be “politically correct” in your views, whatever that means. It’s your right as an American to be as big an asshole as you want to be. The bigger question is, why would you want to be an asshole?
In the military, more so than most workplaces, it’s not as important to be liked so much as to be respected. Few things are as corrosive to mutual respect as contempt — either the contempt a political loudmouth shows for the views and values of others, or the contempt that loudmouth breeds in those forced to listen. That resulting lack of respect can undermine an organization. It’s even worse when there’s a rank gradient between the lout and the listener, obliging the listener to just sit and be deferential to a person who doesn’t respect his opinion or his values. Particularly in the military, an organizational breakdown can have dire consequences. All one has to do to avoid such a breakdown is keep one’s pie hole shut.
Does this mean you can never express your opinions? Absolutely not. In conversations with friends and relatives, rant away until they can’t stand you anymore. On your social media, have at it, within the bounds of your organization’s policy and common sense (though you should consider your coworker/friend/follower overlap). It used to be a basic rule of etiquette that one didn’t discuss race, politics, or religion among polite society. The Internet crushed that old rule and ground it into the dirt.
At work at least, it’s about time we brought that idea back.
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