Lately, I have been abstaining from political discussions.

It is not because I have lost my long-held love of debate; on the contrary, I long for the days where rational people of differing political stripes could sit down and—you know—talk to one another. I miss the spirited, intelligent discussions about the various merits of important issues. I miss the days when I could say what I believed and have my views respected by my peers, even if they disagreed with me.

For example, even though I support the war in Iraq, I fully respect the honest anti-war movement. I disagree with its members—vehemently, at times—but those who have examined the facts and decided not to support the war have taken a valid political position. Likewise, those of us who have examined the facts and decided that this war was justified and necessary have taken an equally valid position.

Supporting the Iraq war does not make me a liar, a murderer, a criminal, a fascist, a neocon lackey, a war-monger, or a gullible moron—though I, either directly or by philosophical association with others who support the war, have been called all of these things. I looked at the information available and came to a conclusion, and despite the dearth of WMDs (an inexcusable failure of our intelligence services) the vast majority of those conclusions still hold true for me today. Saddam Hussein was a brutal, dangerous dictator; a free Iraq is a better Iraq.

But my opinion is often dismissed right-off as a selfish drive to obtain cheap oil, put a Starbucks on every corner in Fallujah, and generally dominate the world. Rather than listening to what I say and considering it and debating it, I’m derided as a murderer and barraged with mindless anti-war catch phrases. It has finally reached the point that I cannot even talk about why I support this war anymore. I keep my mouth shut because I am tired of being simultaneously screamed-at and ignored.

Supporters of the war are not without blame in this degradation of discourse, although I seldom experience it from them first-hand since I’m usually on their side. It is perfectly acceptable to criticize those like Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) who strongly supported the war until his poll numbers shifted, and to note and deride the revisionist history and general vitriol produced by many in the anti-war movement today. But it is just as wrong to dismiss legitimate disagreement with this war as anti-American as it is for the anti-war crowd to dismiss my views as shameless imperialism.

I am focusing on the Iraq war simply because it is the most prevalent and controversial political issue today, but this trend toward ‘debate’ through insulting sound-bytes has taken firm hold of nearly all political discussion in this country. If you agree with affirmative action programs you’re a race-baiter; if you’re against them you’re a racist. If you’re pro-choice you’re a cold-hearted murderer; if you’re pro-life you’re a close-minded misogynist. If you’re for capital punishment you’re a sadist; if you’re against it you’re pro-crime. If you vote Democrat you’re a pinko commie who sleeps with dictators; if you vote Republican you’re a hyper-religious imperialist bigot.

Enough already.

We are all entitled to our political opinions, provided that we have taken the initiative to appropriately research and consider those opinions. But we absolutely must accept that others are entitled to their opinions as well, and that others will not always agree with us. With mutual respect and intelligent debate, those on all sides of an issue can become better informed. When we’re better informed, we can be better prepared to compromise. When we learn to compromise, we can move this country forward in a way that reflects the majority without alienating the minority.

Representative democracy thrives on that kind of compromise, and if we expect our government to start functioning properly again we need to stop screaming catchy one-liners at one another and calling it a discussion. Many of this nation’s best thinkers—liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike—can no longer be heard above the roaring din of insults and innuendo. New ideas are quickly labeled as being pro-this or anti-that and dismissed without a second thought, leading some—like myself—to withdraw from sharing their ideas at all. That’s not democracy; it’s a counterproductive schoolyard yelling match.

I like to think that the people of the United States are better than that. We must make a collective choice to respect differing opinions rather than hurling insults. We must decide to participate in open-minded debate rather than discount new ideas outright. We must demand that political discourse—both between individuals and in the public square—be held to a higher standard of decorum and respectfulness. Until we make these demands of ourselves and of our leaders, we will remain a painfully disunited country with no clear vision for the future.