My new next-door neighbors were having a painting party, but not the usual kind. On a sail-shaped piece of canvas in the backyard, they and their friends were making a sign. And as I unloaded the dishwasher, I watched them through my window and saw white letters emerge from the blackening background.

The first word they finished was: BUSH.

I found this unsettling. Neighbors whom I hardly knew yet had assembled two dozen people to commit politics in broad daylight.

The next word that emerged was: GUILTY.

Aha! Democrats. I'm a Democrat, too. Reassured that we wouldn't be fighting political battles over the side fence, I began foraging in the freezer to find something to feed the kids.

Another word: MURDER.

Okay, now I was on edge again. Odds were that my neighbors opposed the death penalty. I oppose it, too, but I hate to see the word "murder" thrown around in the midst of moral controversies, in part because it makes dialogue just about impossible, but mostly because branding someone a murderer justifies, in advance, almost any calumny you might visit upon the person.

But since I supported my neighbors' cause, I decided to go back to fixing dinner. Then another word appeared: RIDGE.

This was a few days B.C. (Before Cheney), when Tom Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania, the state in which the Republican convention would be held, was still considered a viable vice-presidential candidate.

The appearance of his name set me to worrying once again. Ridge is a Catholic who supports abortion rights. For that reason, conservative Republican leaders had warned the Texas governor not to choose him as a running mate. If my neighbors' sign was going to read: BUSH, RIDGE IS GUILTY OF MURDER, that would mean my neighbors were pro-life activists.

My own views on abortion would not fit on a sign or, for that matter, in the remainder of this column. Suffice it to say that their being against abortion wouldn't bother me much; I have those days myself. But their having a party to make pro-life signs, their suggestion that supporters of legalized abortion were murderers, and their apparent willingness to take time off from work to carry these signs to Philadelphia gave me the jitters.

Of course, there was every chance that I had been right in the first place, that the sign was going to read: BUSH & RIDGE ARE GUILTY OF MURDER. In which case, I asked myself, what's the big deal?

On the issue of consistency, I've always been an Emersonian--hobgoblin of little minds and all that. But the double standard I was applying to my neighbors and their sign was a little much even for me. It was OK for my neighbors to be overzealous about a cause with which I was comfortable, but not about one I did not support.

As I watched them finish the sign, however, my own hypocrisy was not what bothered me most. (Or perhaps it was, and what follows is just a rationalization. But bear with me.) It struck me that what I was doing was similar to what most of us do when we encounter, even at a silent distance, those whose beliefs challenge our own. That is, we assume that an offensive opinion on the issue in question springs from an entirely corrupted or benighted source.

Hence, in a much-noted incident several years ago in a story on the supposed political cohesiveness of evangelical Christians, two "Washington Post" reporters implied that such people were unintelligent and easily led. Hence Pat Robinson's nightly reduction of all political issues to a contest between good religious conservatives and their morally debased opposition on the ongoing sin against charity that is "The 700 Club." And hence my peering out the kitchen window waiting for the remaining few letters that would decide, in some measure, my opinion of my neighbors.

I wish I could say that I recognized the absurdity of my situation at once. But, having slipped into full culture-wars mode, I was checking my ammunition; that is, I was rehearsing the arguments I would have with my neighbors if it ever came to that.

Now I don't want to dismiss the importance of thrashing out political and moral disagreements. Nor am I arguing the utopian notion that in our extravagantly pluralistic country we can just put aside our differences and hum harmoniously along. If the message on my neighbors' sign had been racist, or had they been painting swastikas, no one would have blamed me for jumping to conclusions about the nature of their characters.

For me, neither capital punishment nor abortion are nearly so clear cut. Holding an opinion different from mine does not put you beyond the pale, not even my own personal pale. Yet there I was, doing what I think most of us do when a divisive political or moral issue arrives uninvited in our personal space: preparing to fight or fly.

You can't really blame us. The media, of which I am a card-carrying member, feeds on controversy--no conflict, no story. In the interest of balance, we tend to present most issues as though there were only two viable viewpoints: pro and con. Understanding our weakness for dichotomy keeps a great many think-tank cafeterias in poached salmon and puts the children of talking heads (Him: Is not! Her: Is too!) through private schools. But eventually, this reductive way of looking at the world can become reflexive, transforming all of life into ideological combat and leading us to confuse people's opinions with their essences.

So there I was, putting down the soy sauce, reaching for the hammer of culture-wars rhetoric and looking at my neighbors as though they were nails. That was when my wife walked in.

"They're making signs against the death penalty to take to the convention," she said.

"How do you know?"

"It just came up in conversation. They're socialists, too."

Suddenly, I began to feel rather foolish, but not because my neighbors and I were on the same side of the issue at hand. My efforts to determine the sentiments of the sign were contorted, conducted entirely at one remove, as though I couldn't risk simply shouting out the window, "Whatcha writin'?" My wife's, on the other hand, were direct. What's more, she had treated them as neighbors, while I had treated them as potentially disruptive to my personal peace. She had risked the beginnings of a relationship, and I had not.

I'm not suggesting that heartfelt disagreements will disappear if we talk them over. But I think it is obvious that it is more difficult to be turned against someone whom we do know than against someone whom we don't; that we behave more temperately when there is a relationship at stake than when there is not.

We don't need to be reminded that our opinions on issues such as abortion and the death penalty have political significance. But we do need to be reminded that neighborliness, friendship, and conviviality have a political dimension, too; that without the trust they nurture, we fall prey to zealots and our debates become little more than exchanges of propaganda.

All this by way of saying that when we do what I was doing that afternoon in my kitchen--regarding my neighbors as ideographs rather than as individuals--we are performing the devil's work for him.

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