Mama always said that polite folks don’t discuss religion or politics “with company.” Remember that? I remember hearing her tell us that on more than one occasion.

I never understood the logic behind her advice, at least not until I got to college. Reagan and Carter were duking it out for the highest office in the land back then and as it turned out, folks felt pretty strongly about their candidate. At the ripe age of 17 and as a know-it-all sophomore in college, I was in Carter’s corner. I didn’t really have a good reason, except for the fact that he hailed from Georgia. I’ll never forget voicing my ill-informed opinion in the dining hall one evening, or the way that my friends took that opportunity to tell me that I was, well, grossly ill-informed. That night marked the first – and last – time I ever got my feelings hurt over politics. Turns out, Mama was right.

Something happens to us when the topics of religion and politics rear their controversial heads. Why is that? I believe that, since we feel so passionately about both, we defend both with vehemence. I also believe that we feel compelled to bring others around to our way of thinking; to do anything less would be to leave the other guy in ignorance and darkness, right? It’s our duty to educate and inform others, so that we can all be passionate about the same people and beliefs. 

Somehow, some way, we as a society have come around to this way of thinking. We’ve become derailed with respect to what’s always been beautiful about this country, and that’s the right to believe, speak and vote exactly as we please. Somewhere along the way, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that if someone disagrees with us, then they must hate us. When did that happen? When did we decide that, unless someone else’s thoughts and beliefs are in line with our own, then that person is wrong and if we just badger and belittle them enough, we can fix that. 

I heard a phrase the other day, a beautiful turn of words that’s stuck with me. “Dignify another’s voice,” which simply means to grant another person the courtesy of speaking and believing as she chooses, not the way we think she ought to. Granting that dignity does not mean that we agree – or that we disagree. It simply means that other people have the same right, no more and no less than we do, to think and speak for themselves. 

Maybe the use of social media has added fuel to the fiery pit that has re-placed civil, courteous discourse. It’s become very easy to fire off insults and brand others as being  ”stupid,” hiding behind a keyboard under the cloak of anonymity. Perhaps round-the-clock“news,” written by folks who care more about being first than being right, fans the flames of hatred that colors so much of our speech today. Whatever the reasons, I hope that we -  as a nation and as a species - rediscover how to interact with one another. I hope that we begin to value respect and civility over browbeating and verbal victory. After all, how many minds have been changed by shouting, insulting and demeaning? Not many, I suspect. 

Mama was right, as she was about this and so many other things. So be passionate, yes, but don’t confuse passion with hatred. Be passionate in the voting booth, but also be passionate in your community and your relationships. You know what changes minds? Active kind-ness. Generosity. Compassion. Minds are changed one at a time by using those gentle persuaders; it might be the other guy’s mind that changes, and then again it might be yours. Maybe the two will meet in the middle. But it’s not changed minds that matter; it’s our humanity. Our decency, and our respectability. When those become our focus, the guy who’s flying in Air Force One becomes a lot less important, and our relationships move to the forefront. 

In my lifetime, there have been exactly 15 U.S. presidential elections. Funny, the victors were about half and half, Democrats and Republicans. That means that about half the country has been un-happy with the guy occupying the White House at any given time. About half the country, we might say today, has been “offended” by the voters’ choice at any given time. Does that make us a country comprised of sworn enemies? Does it make us a nation of half brilliant, half hopelessly ignorant, citizens? Of course not.

My point is that, no matter who is President and no matter whether there’s an (R) or a(D) after the name, we are still a nation of people and as the name suggests, we are the United States of America. But even more important, we are human beings and as such, each of us deserves the same respect that we expect to be granted. It’s not so much about  ”right” and “wrong”; rather, it’s about ”de-cent” and “civil.”

It’s about dignifying another’s voice, even if all we can muster is the silence that only self-control can govern. 

Carole Townsend is a feature writer and columnist of the Gwinnett Citizen.