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Why words matter, especially in 2020

Listening to 2020 campaign rhetoric has made me think about the power of words to heal hurt feelings and develop understand so that people can work together to solve shared problems. I was listening Wednesday when Joe Biden was gaining electoral votes, and he said something that made me think: “Your opponent is not your enemy.”

Opponents compete against each other in the same games with the same basic goals. They want to see which team is most capable and has the best strategy to win on a given day. They do not seek to destroy each other or do harm to the families and property of the other individual or team.

In fact, opponents who work honestly and fairly make each other improve and become more effective at the game they are playing.

John McCain was Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election when Joe Biden was running for vice president. McCain and Biden were clearly opponents, but they had been friends in the Senate for decades. When Senator McCain died, his friend, former Vice President Biden gave one of the best accounts of true friendship and shared public service that I have ever heard. It was clear that they had reached across the Red and Blue divide many times to find ways to make things work better for all Americans.

Enemies, on the other hand, are in a fight to the death. They must kill or be killed. They believe they must destroy the other person and wipe out their families, homes, and way of life. This sort of relationship leads to genocide, homicide, regicide, and even suicide. It is always destructive because enemies have no respect for each other’s rights and cannot trust each other on any level.

Enemies foment violent sentiments against one another by arousing the fear that the enemy will wipe out our way of life and essentially kill us off. Enemies call each other by pejorative names. They see each other as extremely evil. Such talk leads to rioting in the street, and the eventual decline of political order.

The loyal opposition is necessary for progress. When one side or the other believes political changes must be absolute, it does a disservice to American democracy. Slow change is the essential dynamic of human economic and social reform. No woman or person of color would qualify to vote today if we were still operating under the voting rules in place when the original Constitution was written. Our way of life is built on compromise born of conversations among opponents who respect each other.

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