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Reversing the toxic talk of political discussions

image of political pundits yelling

Political pundits take to the airwaves. Images from Fox News and CNBC.

Political discussions in the United States have been hijacked, and Joseph Zompetti hopes to get them back into the hands of the people.

Zompetti, a professor of communication at Illinois State, is the author of a new book, Divisive Discourse: The Extreme Rhetoric of Contemporary American Politics. “Divisive discourse is when politicians, political pundits or anyone involved in political discussions engage in polarizing talk, and use fallacies to manipulate or play the blame game,” said Zompetti.

The constant use of this extreme rhetoric has polarized Democrats and Republicans to the point that only the far ends of the spectrum are getting attention, said Zompetti. “Moderate and reasonable people do exist, but they are not the ones who have access to the megaphone and get airtime.”

Politics has disintegrated to the unmoving stances of sports fans, Zompetti asserts. “If you’re a Cubs fan, and I’m a White Sox fan, we’ll yell and scream and holler about who is better,” he said. “Yet that’s what politics has become. Of course, this isn’t baseball. Politics is about things that impact us everyday. It can be about life or death.”

image of Professor of Communication Joseph Zompetti

Professor of Communication Joseph Zompetti

The true tragedy of all this yelling is that the American people are simply tuning out. “Frequently, people will avoid talking about politics altogether, or they will parrot or mimic what they see on television, which is a lot of bickering,” said Zompetti. “We don’t get very far as a society when we stop paying attention.”

In his book, Zompetti lays the foundation for Americans to recapture the political conversation. “The only way democracy works is if people participate and are knowledgeable about that engagement,” he said. “We need to be mindful of making decisions that are reasonable as well as aligning with our passions.”

From helping readers identify a fallacy, to the typical language used in spin tactics, Zompetti’s text works to develop critical thinking skills. Zompetti drew from his years teaching a course on controversy and contemporary society. “I tell my students, ‘I don’t care what you think. I just care how you think,’” he said. “At the end of the day, I might disagree with your position, but if you can support it, then I will have respect for that and listen to you. And hopefully, that will be reciprocated. And, that is the only way common ground can be located.”

That idea of starting a conversation with a modicum of respect can carry a long way outside the classroom, said Zompetti. “I hope we can see that respect duplicated at town hall meetings and around water coolers and at the dinner table.”

The current political atmosphere – permeated with a lack of respect and absence of critical thinking skills – is leaving its mark as the nation heads into another national election, noted Zompetti. “I think it has some tragic implications. This type of toxic discourse silences more than it empowers,” he said. “Most people choose to disengage from politics, which allows people in positions of power to make choices for us. When we give up our voice, other people will fill the vacuum.”