“a friend you haven’t made yet.”

With the 2012 election right around the corner, our televisions and websites have been inundated with lofty promises, public endorsements, and snarky sound bites. Furthermore, everyone (admittedly, myself included) appears to have something to say about each of the candidates, their platforms, and the “correct” vision for our nation’s future.

It’s easy to get swept up in the rhetoric, especially as many of these issues are highly polarized (and thus highly emotional). From social issues like gay marriage and abortion rights and rape to the national deficit and job creation, we are shown candidates that seemingly disagree on all topics—which in turn means that each group of partisan supporters must disagree on all topics.

Add name-calling and bullying to the mix, and the situation quickly becomes volatile.
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There’s already been a great deal of discussion surrounding hatemonger “conservative political pundit” Ann Coulter, for her incendiary and classless use of the term “retard” in reference to President Obama. I refuse to fuel the fire by engaging Coulter on this topic: her desperate words do not interest me.

What does matter, however, is the vast outpouring of support for those disparaged by her offensive remarks and the public outcry against this hateful rhetoric. But in our denunciation of her bad behavior, we must be careful: all too often, we elect to “fight fire with fire” and—although it may provide a temporary feeling of vindication—this approach offers nothing conducive to effecting change.

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It is in recognition of this fact that John Franklin Stephens’ “Open Letter to Ann Coulter” has made such a positive impact on so many people in the past few days. Where there is bitterness and division, Stephens counters with acceptance and kindness. He reminds us that “being compared to people like [him] should be considered a badge of honor” because “no one overcomes more than [they] do and still loves life so much.”

Stephens’ first op-ed piece, “Using the word ‘retard’ to describe me hurts,” is even more poignant as those of us fortunate enough to “fit in” are reminded of our blessing:

“The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness. We process information slower than everyone else. So even normal conversation is a constant battle for us not to lose touch with what the rest of you are saying. Most of the time the words and thoughts just go too fast for us to keep up, and when we finally say something it seems out of place.

So, what’s wrong with “retard”? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the “in” group. We are someone that is not your kind.”

This is the sort of essay that needs to be present in our schools, our offices, and in our homes. The distinction between casually and callously throwing around a disparaging term (simply for the sake of being disparaging) and Stephens’ thoughtful and sensitive response is overwhelming.

As I read his words, I am filled with admiration and pride that there are still people fighting for kindness and promoting tolerance. I am persuaded, I am energized, and I am prepared to support fellowship by eliminating hatred.

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