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Why would a commentary on civility unleash so uncivil a reaction?

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Carrie Daklin
Carrie Daklin is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer and a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.
Courtesy of Carrie Daklin

There's a certain irony to writing a commentary on civil discourse and being responded to with a lack of it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the rude behavior of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., at a recent committee hearing. Political polarization is creating a huge divide in our nation, and as a constituent I was disappointed to see one of our legislators, someone I voted for and generally admire, exacerbate the problem. A witness is a witness and to thank "all but one" of them who testified in that particular hearing belittles the office Franken holds. Playing a game of semantics with a witness is also, in my judgment, unacceptable. 

So I wrote a piece suggesting that our elected representatives should be at the forefront of a crusade against the simmering hostility in our nation. Civility should begin with them.

That was the ONLY agenda I was pushing. 

The commentary was posted Friday, July 29, and by the end of the day there were a modest eight comments from various readers.

At last count there were more than 75. And the number has been growing daily.

A few days after the commentary appeared I Googled myself, which I do when I know a piece of mine has been published. I am always curious to see whether and where my commentaries have been picked up by other organizations. I found my commentary, or what I should more accurately say was a portion of my commentary, posted on the website for the National Organization for Marriage, a group with which I was completely unfamiliar. I'm pretty sure its post was Ground Zero for what followed.

There must be a group of advocates who watch that website for anything that might conflict with their point of view. Within days, my words, taken completely out of context, and my message -- better manners -- had been used as the basis for a rallying cry: Carrie Daklin of Minnesota is a homophobe.

I am not sure how my message got so skewed. I have become the object of hate mail and really vicious comments, all in the name of etiquette. Go figure.

I found this all rather unsettling.

I have three kids: one very liberal child, one very conservative child and one who could not give two hoots about politics. I am proud to say that in our family you get to be exactly who you are. You are not judged. You are accepted and respected. You get to voice your opinion, and because you are able to do it in a safe place, it creates an atmosphere for genuine listening. We have some really great discussions. In short, we have civil discourse.

This is how I have raised my children, and this is how they have gone out into the world. And if I die tomorrow (choking on my hetero-supremacist bigotry, as one reader suggested), then I know I have left the world a better place. 

What has happened in our culture, that so many of us are completely unable to accept someone who doesn't share our views? I don't agree with all that my conservative Christian friends espouse, but I support their right to their beliefs. I don't agree with a very liberal friend who said certain members of the religious right should be shot. Actually, he used the word murdered. Sadly, I think he meant it.   

In retrospect, the original infraction I wrote about is positively innocuous compared to the resulting uproar. To be blunt: My article was not about gay rights, it was not about the Defense of Marriage Act, and it most certainly was not a promotion for the National Organization for Marriage. 

My article was on civility, it was on manners and respect for other people, it was on public decency even toward those you might not agree with. It was about creating a conduit in our society that allows for the paradigms and values of others, so that we can get to a place of compromise. It was about working to replace anger with a tolerance that allows us to thrive.

In the last few weeks I have been a poster child for extremism -- the left vilifying me, the right holding me up as some sort of hero. Both make me equally uncomfortable. Both are unwanted. If I am a poster child for anyone, it is Emily Post.

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Carrie Daklin is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer and a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.