Guest Opinion: Searching for words that unite us

Two days before last year’s presidential election, Frank Luntz walked away from a CBS “60 Minutes” focus group leaving people uncontrollably screaming at one another. He couldn’t stop it. Nobody could.

America’s political frustration has boiled far beyond anyone’s ability to listen and find common ground. Our country’s polarization now is to the point where people are shooting one another.

Luntz is the best in the business. He is a pioneer in the field of communications and public opinion research. While at Association of Washington Business (AWB), we hired Luntz to help us find the words, phrases and tones which unified people.

His books, especially “Words that work — It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear,” were popular with our members.

AWB brought him back for another presentation in May. Luntz underscored his belief that people must carefully choose their words and listen.

“I wish our politicians and our business leaders asked the people who follow them to imagine a better future because that would be a direct appeal to a life better than we are living today,” told AWB.

Words, such as imagine, inspire dreams. However, people must put down their bullhorns, stop mean-spirited character attacks and check their facts before posting statements on the Internet.

As a country, we have reached a tipping point. If the recent shooting at a baseball field just outside of Washington, D.C., isn’t a wake-up call and the juncture where people are willing to set aside their rage and begin listening, we’re really in trouble.

It is one thing for members of Congress to read about constituents being shot, but it hits home when it happens to their colleagues.

The ability to express our opinions is a constitutionally guaranteed right and is the foundation of our democracy. Heated political debate has been around since the beginning of our nation and sometimes, unfortunately, that rage has been violent. (The example is the Burr-Hamilton pistol duel between the former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton and sitting vice president Aaron Burr, on July 11, 1804, at Weehawken, N.J.).

Even the emotionally charged Watergate incident leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, was pale in comparison to what is happening today. At the time, I was an aide to a Montana Republican on Capitol Hill. Each morning we would link up with a Maryland Democrat’s staff in the cafeteria to talk, listen and figure out how to resolve issues.

There was a commitment to respect, civility and decency that is missing today. We learned from one another. Today, however, Luntz told AWB: “In fact, it’s like the Wild Wild West where you can say and do anything because there is no one to hold you accountable.”

People come with a set of eyes and ears and one mouth. Through the generations, our parents taught us to respectfully listen and research our facts before spouting off. Many parents went a step further telling us to walk a mile in another person’s shoes before passing judgment.

Our leaders must dial down the rhetoric and thoughtfully address the issues concerning Americans. We must quit personalizing differences and rationally share ideas on ways to solve problems.

We need to use words that bring us together and get beyond the “quick draw” reactions on Facebook and Twitter that antagonize us. News commentators can help set the tone if they get beyond their obsession to talk over one another even though it may drive-up viewer ratings.

Experts, like Frank Luntz, should not be driven off stage. They are the folks who can bring us together.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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