Monday, August 27, 2012

What Ugly Politics Does to Kids

I don't have television reception where I live, and chose not to spend money on cable or dish.  I do miss it sometimes, because it's not all banality.  It's a good escape when I need laughter and it's often educational.  "Frasier" taught me lots of new words.  And one episode of "House" might have saved my cousin's life when she found what she thought was a wild carrot in her garden (which may have actually been the deadly plant hemlock).

But not until I was recently hospitalized in a room with cable TV did I realize the best gift I had received by not having network television access at home: freedom from negative political advertisements. Three months before a presidential and congressional election, I'm surprised they have any time for actual programming.

The percentage of political ads that are negative - that is, attacking the opponent rather than focusing on one's own accomplishments - varies depending on the part of the country in which you live.  According to the New York Times, during the last week before Florida's Republican primary election, 92 percent of political ads were negative...92 percent!  And it's getting worse from both major parties, with the Miami Herald reporting that 7 out of 10 ads this year have been negative, a huge leap from only about 9 percent negative ads in the 2008 presidential race.

I've been thinking about the large amount of time children are exposed to television, and how they must be taking in a lot of these ads. Can you imagine if children learned and practiced the behaviors they see in these ads?  Not only are we teaching our kids to hate their peers, colleagues, and opponents, but worse, we are teaching them to make excuses for their behavior, and to deflect responsibility by blaming others for their wrongdoings. 

"I know I cheated on this test, Ms. Johnson, but if you review the records of my classmate Robert, he has cheated nearly every week, for his own gain, while I only did it once...and that was to ensure our school would receive much-needed No Child Left Behind funding!"

"Four years ago my rival for head cheerleader botched a cartwheel during the most important football game of our school's season.  Is that the kind of "leader" we want, or would you rather have someone who has never botched a cartwheel in her life?"

"Yes, I did hit my sister, Mom, but if you are a patriotic American, don't you agree that a strong home defense is necessary for peace and unity?"

I was inadvertently taught to hate politicians before I really understood what politics even were.  I remember a January day when I was in the sixth grade. Living in a region predominantly populated with Democrats, we children had spent the past few months listening to negative ads and listening to our parents complain about President Ronald Reagan.  So when an aide came into our classroom to tell us that President Reagan had been shot, in our stupid 11-year-old naivete, we all started to cheer, celebrate, and high-five each other.  

Our otherwise kind and gentle teacher, Elaine Armendariz, slammed her hand down on the desk to shut us up, and proceeded to give us an almost minute-by-minute accounting of what it was like the day President John F. Kennedy was killed. It was a very healthy dose of shame I have never forgotten, no matter how badly I may dislike whomever holds a public office.

I will tell you whom I plan to vote for and why, and I may tell you why I disagree with my candidate's opponent, but never will you see me make a joke about killing a candidate, or a bumper sticker on my car alluding to a racial slur, or hear me say cheap shots about a candidate's family, looks, religion, or wardrobe.  They cheapen us all.

Whether it is through programs like debate clubs, public speaking training, morality education through religious institutions, strong parenting, or other means, we must teach our children to fight fair and fight civilly, even against people at the polar opposite of their own beliefs.  And perhaps more importantly, we shouldn't measure someone's goodness on the worse things that other people do.