Uncle Sam wants YOU

to learn English

—bumper sticker

I saw this bumper sticker while driving up the interstate yesterday, and after the automatic cringe, it got me thinking about a much larger question than the wrangle over English speaking.

To get to that question, however, let’s probe the bumper sticker a bit more. It seems self-evident that learning the language of the country where you live carries many advantages. If I moved to France (please, O Lord), I could get a job, buy stamps, and find a good dentist way more easily by knowing and speaking French. On a broader level, I could contribute more of myself to my new community—through volunteering, writing, promoting political candidates, etc.—by knowing and speaking French.

So in the United States, learning English enables you to transact your business and make a difference in ways that not learning English can’t. Because of this, you might even say that Uncle Sam would be delighted if non-English-speakers learned English, so they can bring their whole selves to the public square.

None of that changes the fact that the bumper sticker is aggressive and cringeworthy. So here comes the larger question:

How on earth can we hear truth—even a grain of it—in an opinion expressed so offensively?

In an ideal world, of course, the people who express opinions this way would become more civil in their speech and their inner lives. In our imperfect world, there’s a strong temptation to simply ignore these folks. And to ignore any hint of what they express.

Maybe that’s the right thing to do. But here’s why it might not be.

I remember a cartoon in which one fellow at a bar said to another, “All I know is, if you’re against pollution, it can’t be all bad.” See the problem? As we dismiss someone we find obnoxious, we also dismiss his perspective—lock, stock, and barrel—and wind up in a place where we don’t want to be.

Examples? Here’s one to start us off: I’m very worried about the growth of the national debt. Have been since long before it became the cause célèbre of the right wing. But I find it very hard to express that opinion when the more rabid wing of the Tea Party has shouted it—and various distortions of it—from the housetops. I feel almost squeezed into the position of “If you’re against the national debt, it can’t be all bad.”

I’ll bet you can think of a hundred other examples. Go for it. Write about them in the Comments section below.