It's been an emotional few weeks in many areas of my life and my heart is feeling a bit tender. I know so many people who are struggling right now--struggling with money or relationships or faith. Struggling with addictions or depression or any number of other burdens--seen or unseen. I'm tired of the acrimonious debates around--not between candidates, but between regular people who ought to know and be better.
The longer I live and the more deeply I feel God's presence in my life, the more I realize that he is, above all, loving and generous.
I don't think he's wishy-washy or apathetic. I think he loves us enough to want us to be our best. I also think he's demanding and that he is mighty. He is not created in our image--we our in his and he expects certain things of us.
But that being said, I am confident above all that he loves us. Deeply and eternally, more powerfully than the most affectionate mortal parent has ever loved a child.
And while I believe he is demanding, he is not petty or capricious. And he is unfailingly generous.
I believe that God is a loving father. A perfect, eternal, being who's entire raison d'etre, who's entire work and glory is bringing about the eternal welfare and happiness of his children.
I wish all of us could be kinder and more loving to each other--especially to those with whom we disagree.
Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of our faith taught it this way:
“While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes ‘His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’ [Matthew 5:45.]” (source).
We are so ungenerous with each other. We are suspicious of motives and judgmental of actions. We do with each other exactly the opposite of what we hope for ourselves: we look at actions with the harshest of interpretations and from that judgment, we infer motives.
We judge ourselves on our intentions and what we hoped to do, but we judge others on what they have done and what we assume they meant.
We affix each other with labels that reduce the humanity and dignity and value of other people. Liberal. Conservative. This. That. All of these are shorthand for, "I don't have to consider you as a person, as my brother or sister. Because you are different, I can discount what you say and feel."
If we were generous like God, we would assume most people meant well even when they did badly. We would assume that things they said might not reflect the person inside. We would hesitate before judging them. We would love them in spite of disagreeing with them.
Love doesn't mean "agree" or "endorse". Being generous doesn't mean endorsing a person's actions and beliefs.
But can we not just be kind? Can we not presume good faith? Must every disagreement between us become a skirmish between Good and Evil? Must every difference be proof of the absolute idiocy or knavery of our opponents?
I am convinced that there is very little that I know as much as I think I know it. Time and experience have softened or changed many social and political opinions I had earlier.
The one thing I've learned, one thing I know, is that God loves us all much more than we comprehend. That he is always far kinder and more generous than we are.
One of my favorite verses of scripture is unique to Mormons. It reads:
"Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used..." (D&C 59: 18-20 source)
To me this defines generosity. I love that I worship a God that made beautiful things to please our eyes and gladden our hearts--things with no other utility than to make us happy. And I love it even more that doing that makes him happy--he made beautiful things and it pleased him to do so. Regardless of how we act or if we thank him or anything. That is love and generosity and I wish we could all show a little more of it to each other. Especially when we deserve it least.
If I were to come into your house and disagree with something you say, that would probably be okay with you. But if I started to cast aspersions on your motives, or devolved into name-calling, that would probably not go over so well. In fact, if I persisted, you would most likely ask me to leave and not invite me back. And you would be right.
This is my blog and it is sort of like an online home. It's not a perfect analogy, I understand that. Nevertheless, I think the same rules apply. If you choose to come here and read and comment, fine. If you disagree with me--fine. If you think something I write isn't funny, or well-written, that's fine, too.
But if you make jumps from disagreeing with what I (or another commenter) write to being insulting, not fine. If you call names or speak in pejorative terms, you are simply not welcome here. I will delete your comment and block future ones.
I've never had any kind of commenting policy on this blog before. I've never needed to. I've loved having readers from a variety of backgrounds, regions, ages, religions, and life experiences. And people have always been great.
But yesterday, that changed. Someone found something I wrote a year ago offensive and posted a link in a discussion group. My traffic went through the roof. Most people came for a minute and left. Perhaps they liked it, perhaps not. But they went their way.
Now, I'm genuinely sorry if anyone was offended, but I re-read the piece three times and didn't see anything I felt was offensive. When I wrote it, I didn't have malicious intent. So, what can I do? I can't apologize for something I didn't intend and something I don't think I did. That would be dishonest and cynical. All I can say is, "I'm really sorry you were offended. That wasn't my intention." I don't know what more I can say.
A few people left comments. One was thoughtful. The commenter disagreed politely--explaining why she (I think it was a she, but I don't know for sure. Sorry if I'm wrong) was troubled by what I wrote. I tried to respond respectfully and explain my intentions. I think and hope we understand each other a little better now. Another commenter made assumptions about my beliefs and the way I live my faith. That's rude, in my opinion, and ineffective in discussions. But her tone was at least civil, so I assumed she was acting in good faith, replied to her and left her comment up. The next commenter was just rude. She assumed bad faith and called names. I deleted her comment.
After that, I just turned the comments off. It was a busy day and I didn't have time to read or reply to comments, was tired of the tone, and decided there was nothing more I could productively say. Since this is my personal blog, I don't feel obligated to provide an unlimited public forum.
I am tired of rude people. A lot of people seem to think that being angry, upset, or offended, entitles them to disregard common courtesy and decency. Many seem to think that disagreeing with them is the same as being offensive. I don't care where you fall on the political spectrum. I don't care how old you are, what gender you are, or where you live. Rudeness is rudeness and there's no excuse for it. Speaking up for what you believe is not license to be rude and seeing something differently is not offensive.
I happen to think that this is one of the more pernicious characteristics of our public discourse and has serious implications for our world.
I can't control what happens in the larger society. But if you want to comment on this blog, please do so in a civil tone. Saying, "I disagree with you completely and here's why..." is fine. "You are an arrogant, stupid jerk..." is not. Implying that someone is an idiot or a knave is not acceptable, either.
I have visited many blogs over the years where people said things I disagreed with--sometimes strenuously. Just the other day, in fact. So, I closed my browser and left. I didn't feel compelled to make a comment in most cases. Frankly, that seems a bit presumptuous to me. But if it was a discussion and I did leave a comment, I tried to do so in a courteous way. You can disagree with someone's position without attacking their motives and character. In those exchanges, I often learned something or at least came to understand someone better.
When I write something, I take responsibility for what I intended to say and for how well I said it. If you think something is badly written, not funny, inaccurate, fine. Writing is highly subjective and I realize not everyone will like or agree with what I say. And if I write something that I feel is actually offensive, I'll apologize. That is the responsibility I assume with this blog.
But I can't--and won't--take responsibility for other people's reactions to what I write. Subjectivity cuts two ways. I can't be responsible for other people's assumptions or the background and frame of mind they bring to reading what I write. I won't argue about my motives or character. If someone chooses to read and comment, then that person assumes responsibility for their responses and must accept that their background and experiences may very well tint their perception of what I write.
Those are the rules for this blog. If you want to abide by them, you are most welcome anytime, like me or not, agree or disagree. If you do not want to abide by them, please leave my virtual home.
This is disgusting. It is reprehensible. I don't have the words to say what I feel about it. This has nothing to do with politics (incidentally, I made this point when right-wing people mocked young Chelsea Clinton, but there were no blogs back then).
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post has ridiculed the way the Santorums dealt with the death of their still-born child. You can read about it here. Alan Colmes did the same thing, but was called out on it and apologized. Robinson needs to be called out on it as well--by every parent, by everyone who believes in simple decency.
This revolts and infuriates me. Is nothing off-limits? Is nothing sacred or private anymore? A family mourning a lost child is one of the most intimate, private things I can think of and it is ghoulish and inhuman to discuss it, let alone criticize it.
Do what you want with your own kids--don't have kids if you don't want them. Mourn them however you want. On that note, disagree loudly and vigorously with any of Senator Santorum's policy views (I do with a number of them).
But at what point do we say, "Too far! Stop. Our humanity and decency is far more important than political points!" I would suggest that this is a good point. Is everything to be fair game in politics? Spouses? Children? Dead children? Are there no boundaries? Is politics going to determine what we see is right and wrong. The reality is that many people will react to this story based on their political views. That is wrong. We should react as human beings.
Dear heavens, what and who have we become? I'm normally pretty optimistic, but things like this make me think our culture has crossed a point of no return that makes all our other challenges seem trivial.
Badly done, Mr. Robinson. Badly done.
I want to propose a thought experiment. Take any of your deeply held political views--something significant, not small and trivial. This should be something you feel very strongly about, one you feel is important in a moral sense.
Now, think about why you feel the way you do--what is the moral and logical reasoning you went through to come that opinion or belief?
Imagine someone on the other side of the ideological spectrum--someone like Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow (whichever one opposes your views) describing your position and the people who hold it.
Do you recognize yourself in their description of you and the position? Do they grasp WHY you feel that way?
They might be able to sum up what you believe and give you a label (eg. pro choice or pro life). The label might even be technically accurate, but do they do justice to the moral and intellectual process that led you to that belief?
Or, do they tend to reduce all of the thought and feeling and life experience you bring to your conviction as disordered thinking, assuming at the outset that your belief is wrong and that you are either foolish or stupid or evil for holding that view?
Try this a few times and look in the mirror that your opponents hold up. It seems to be very distorted, does it not?
So, is view that we get of the opposing team likely to be much more accurate?
I try to avoid politics on this blog. I do that because I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle and in between. These friends are good and sincere people and I value their friendship and don't want to be incendiary. I also question how much good talking about politics really does. I mean, having a calm, reasoned discussion is almost impossible. People believe what they believe and I don't think posting things is going to change opinion--but may get people mad. Which accomplishes nothing.
But I am really disturbed by something going on. I've waited for someone to say something and a few people have, but not too many, and I don't want to be silent about it.
In 1838, the early Mormons were living in Missouri. Because of theological, cultural, and political differences between them and the Missourians, tension turned to friction, which ignited violence.
As things got worse, the governor issued what has become known as the Extermination Order. Citing Mormons as a menace to the peace, Governor Boggs said, "...the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State" (link here).
And they were. Mormons had their homes, farms, and businesses burned down. They were whipped, tarred and feathered, beaten, raped, and murdered because they were Mormons.
Not people. Not men and women with feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. Not humans who could feel pain on the flesh of tormented bodies or the pain of broken dreams and cruelty. Not children who cried from hunger and died from exposure. No. They were Mormons.
That is all. Just a word. One word to sum up everything they were--a true word, but a reduction of their humanity into on strange and sinister term. Mormons. Enemies. Killing them or wounding them would have been much easier to do because they weren't people.
One young boy survived a massacre at a settlement called Haun's Mill. When the attackers came in the stockade where the men had barricaded themselves, they found this young boy. "Nits make lice," one of the mobbers said, before pulling the trigger and blowing his thigh away. (Link to reference here).
How easy it is to reduce others to a name, a term. To see them, not as humans, fellow travelers here on this earth, but as the Other. Someone who is not quite human. Not like us. And once this reduction has been completed, how easy it is to be inhumanly, unspeakably cruel.
The Nazis did this to the Jews. The Holocaust didn't happen overnight. It happened only after years of demonization, as Jews were portrayed as infernal, evil, and sub-human. Once the propaganda was spread far enough, the actions followed.
A group of Mormons did the same thing to a wagon train wandering through Utah to California. They heard they were from Missouri and suddenly, instead of families, instead of men and women and children trying to get a better life, they were Missourians. Enemies. They were massacred.
If history teaches us anything it is that we can be grossly cruel to each other and such cruelty seems to be the default setting, not the exception. We can fight against this impulse--but it is a fight. It requires constant vigilance and unremitting effort. We are never past the point where our society could quickly unravel and tribal affiliations flare up into violence. If we think we are past this, if we think we have somehow evolved or progressed beyond this, then we are dangerously and foolishly naive.
And so, I watch with tremendous concern the demonization of groups of people. The Rich are doing this and that. Wall Street Bankers are stealing from you.
Not humans. Not names and faces. Not people who live and love, who die and bleed. Others. Rich people are greedy. They are oppressing us. They are stealing from us. Wall Street Bankers. Fat cats. And so on.
Note that these are vast and generalized terms that are true--but reductive and imprecise. Is everyone who is rich bad? At point does affluence or prosperity become evil riches? $1 million? $500,000? Do the rich get a chance to prove their innocence? If so, what is the process for this? To whom does one submit exculpatory evidence? Is everyone who makes a living on Wall Street greedy?
Terms that make them the Other--a problem that must be solved. The barrier to our happiness and prosperity. The rich are the problem but for whom everything would be good and peaceful. I also note that all the examples I've pointed to are with basically unsympathetic people. It's rather clever. Who's going to go out on a limb to defend rich people? Or, slimy Wall Street people.
Well, I think we all should.
I'm sure there are some crooks on Wall Street and some really nasty rich people. If they broke a law, they should be prosecuted. Period.
But do we really want to live in a society where we can prosecute people we don't like, people we disagree with, or people didn't commit a crime beyond being slimy? Do you want to live in a world where a group of people decide they don't like you or what you did and so call for you to go to jail or be killed just because they don't like you? Or because you were irresponsible? How about just stupid?
It's quite different to criticize a person for specifics. To say, "The President's proposal would have this result..." or "Speaker Boehner's policy actually causes this problem...." It's even different to criticize voluntary, specific groups. "Republicans's policy preferences are wrong because...." or "Democrats are incorrect when they assume ...." (I do think we ought to be specific, not general, and not hyperbolic. I hate it when people do that).
If we want to criticize the way that the government and some corporations work together--fine. That's specific. If we want to discuss the merits or demerits of different policies, legislation or philosophies--great. I love spirited discourse.
But when we stir up resentment toward people in vague, unsympathetic categories, we are playing with fire, I fear.
Revolutions are ugly things, generally. The American Revolution worked out pretty well for us. But the French, Russian, and Chinese (and other more recent, smaller) revolutions were ugly, ugly things that caused suffering far and wide, and ruined the lives of millions and millions of regular people.
Fires, once started, can spread quickly, and are difficult to put out. We live in difficult times and there's a great deal of dry timber in the body politic. I pray that all of us can consider what we say, and whether it's wise and good and helpful--and whether our comments will be sparks that could light a fire that none of us will really want.
I find that possibility chilling. God help us.
It is a beautiful day in Nashville today. Almost, but not quite as beautiful as the crisp, golden fall day in New York City ten years ago.
9/11 is personal to me, to my family. We lived in NYC on that day. A dear friend lost a sister in the attack. I watched the second tower come down from my office window. We were not in danger, but our neighbor worked at the World Trade Center and narrowly missed death that day. In fact, she only lived because she ignored the "all clear" and decided not to go back in after the first plane hit and they were told the other buildings were fine. Later, as she fled, she had to dodge a tire flying through the air--part of the airplane's landing gear.
I regret that, like many other things, 9/11 has become politicized. It wasn't like that in the days immediately after. The horror of 9/11 brought people together in a remarkable way. New York City was a different place for several months. People made eye contact on the subway. They gave up seats to the elderly or pregnant women. They were courteous and kind.
And instead of being from Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan, instead of being Catholic or Jewish or atheists, instead of being white or black or hispanic, instead of being Puerto Ricans, Dominicans--we were all Americans.
American flags proliferated over night. They were every where. Apartments. Fire escapes. Car antennae. It was not nationalism or superiority. It was genuine love and unity. It was an impulse to link arms as we realized that what we took for granted might not be so unassailable.
I thank God that we have not had any more attacks on that scale since then and I honor the brave people who have stood between us and danger. Surely our relative peace has not happened simply because no one has tried to hurt us again.
I think of those brave firefighters and police officers who ran towards the hell that everyone else was running away from. Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). I mourn their loss and the loss of innocent life in those towers.
But I also mourn the loss of unity, the loss of togetherness that swelled up during those days during the aftermath. I mourn the quick, and entrenched return to our own tribes and ideological camps.It's not that I think we should all agree with each other on every thing. I don't, and that's not possible. It's not that I think that principled disagreement is never right. I think it's often important.
But I do wish we could be less strident, less hyper-politicized. The people who died that day died because they were Americans. They didn't die as Democrats or Republicans. The firefighters who gave their lives while trying to rescue people were trying to rescue other Americans, other humans. Their brothers and sisters.
I wish we could remember that.
One of the most amazing things I've ever seen happened on that day. It's something that has not been widely remembered in the collective consciousness and I think it's worth a look.
All the members of the U.S. Congress--senators, congressmen and women came out on the steps of the capitol and held a press conference. They said the things you would expect and had a moment of silence. But watch a few minutes into it. Something really remarkable happens then--something that provides a wonderful metaphor for the way forward.
I don't hear Democrat voices or Republican voices. I just hear Americans singing, acknowledging that we are together and that we need help and guidance.
I recently read a tedious, tendentious essay about Harry Potter. The author is a writer for a liberal leaning web magazine and was new to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. She gushed about how the movie clearly portrayed liberal values and so forth.
To be fair, I read a similar blog post by a conservative writer outlining the conservative world view that exists in J.K. Rowling's books.
To be honest, both of these essays left me feeling a little queasy. They both overlooked clear pieces of data that argued against their points and pushed on, impressing Harry and Rowling to serve their cause like the British Navy dragging some poor guy in a waterfront tavern to the H.M.S. Bounty.
My friends and family know I have strong political views and there is a time and place to discuss those.
But does everything have to be political these days? I mean, Harry Potter, really?
Can we not just enjoy a good story about a brave kid with a scar without having to search for deeper political messages? Are we so bereft of arguments for our politics that we have to draft underage wizards (yes, they are underage by Muggle standards. Harry is only 17).
This distresses me for several reasons. First of all, as I have written before, I worry about the growing, deepening divisions in our country. There is precious little we have in common anymore. So when something comes along that we can all enjoy (or many of us at least) it would be nice not to find ways to disagree about it.
Second, good and great art speaks to our souls. It tells us about being human and it generally draws on universal themes. Harry Potter is about courage, loyalty, friendship, good and evil. These are big ideas, transcendent themes. To drag politics in cheapens it.
Politics is a necessary fact of life in a republic or democracy. It is to freedom what excrement is to life: a fundamental and necessary, if unpleasant, process everyone goes through. But in polite society, we don't focus on it beyond occasional jokes that we all acknowledge are juvenile and in bad taste.
Third, and most importantly, Harry Potter features an evil wizard who tortures and kills people. He wants to rule the world. Republicans or Democrats may really annoy you but come on! They are nowhere near Voldemort's level of evil. And if you think they are, then you are smug, delusional, and a big part of this country's problems. You need long self-reflection, less media, and possibly some counseling. You need to calm down and think clearly and logically. You also need to make some friends with people on the other side of the aisle. You might also read my blog posts on civility here, here, and here.
One of the things that bugs me most about these kind of comparisons is that it's a sort of narcissistic values inflation. The writer elevates his or her policy beliefs to being analogous to great heroes while simultaneously casting those who disagree as villains. That is an off-putting kind of arrogance and self-righteousness.
More than anything though, I think we are focusing far too much of our time on politics. We should vote and write our Congressional representatives. We should be informed and express our opinions. But if we let politics consume and inform everything then it's getting to be unhealthy and we risk becoming myopic. There's so much wonderful and good stuff in the world! If we focus exclusively on politics we are cheating ourselves. Not to mention contributing the polarization and extremism that are raging.
Finally, there have been times and places when all art had political overtones. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and North Korea, for example. Art was (is) subverted to be elegant propaganda for a political message. And it wasn't pretty. It's not something I think we want to emulate. Let's not voluntarily go to this kind of system.
Harry Potter was something enjoyed by adults and children, liberals and conservatives, readers and non-readers. Let's celebrate that and just leave the politics at the bookstore's edge.
In my two previous posts on civility in our larger society I detailed why I think it's important and proposed some small steps that I have found useful in enhancing my own level of civility--and I say that as someone who has strong opinions on political and cultural issues.
I have a few final suggestions on steps to take to help bring about a more civil tone in your own life. Again, these are based on things I've tried and found useful. The steps I suggested in my post yesterday were fairly small and require a few mental adjustments. These are a little more challenging and require a bit of action--although not all that much.
1. Get out of the echo chamber. Yes, it can be comforting and entertaining to be around people who think like you do. I'm all for that. I spend a lot of my time with others of a like mind. Part of that is a natural result of the way we organize ourselves in society. I also tend to consume media that comes from a similar viewpoint. But try getting out of the echo chamber. A steady diet of talk radio or MSNBC will confirm you in your opinion of the rightness of your opinions. Sure, it can be entertaining and satisfying to hear your views expressed forcefully and I'm not saying it's wrong. But, honestly, it's the intellectual equivalent of marrying your cousin and it can have the same effect--intellectual inbreeding. Keep listening to your favorite radio station, reading your favorite blog, whatever. But, occasionally, try reading a column by a thoughtful, intelligent person on the other side of the spectrum. You don't have to agree, but just try to listen and understand their argument and point of view. You can still disagree, but at least take the trouble to know you know what you are disagreeing with.
This is hard. I started trying to expand my diet of information and some of my views were challenged. It was uncomfortable and I didn't like it. Some of my views changed. Some didn't. Incidentally, those that didn't change are stronger because I challenged them.
If you are really enlightened, try making friends with someone who disagrees with you and ask their opinion about something. Just listen. Don't argue or try to convince.
Bonus: I double-dog-dare you to learn to say, sincerely, "That's a good point."
2. Related to this: Realize that you are probably just as ideological as the next person. Your news source is really probably just as biased as those on the other side who you abhor. Fox News has a viewpoint. Undeniably. So does the New York Times, NPR, National Review, The Nation and so on. It's the reality of human nature. We all have biases and prejudices and complete objectivity is not possible.
In my doctoral program, I was trained in qualitative research. A fundamental tenet of this research is that the researcher needs to constantly be aware that he or she is likely to be biased, but that these biases will be unconscious, and therefore, difficult to detect. The way to counter this is to write a statement in which you describe in detail your feelings about the subject you are studying. You put this at the beginning of your research and that way, a reader knows where you are coming from and can judge your results accordingly.
Why not do this? Just admit that you are probably biased. As flawed mortals, we cannot see perfect Truth. So, just acknowledge that you are coming from a certain place and that your news sources probably are too. That doesn't mean they are wrong or evil or untrue. Just be aware of it and balance it out.
3. Okay, here's a big one. If you are religious: render undo God's the things which are God's, and unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar's--in that order. Neither the Republican nor Democratic parties (nor the Libertartians, Greens, or anyone else) is God's Kingdom on the Earth. I could use the Bible and make a pretty good case why the conservatives are right on some issues--and I could do the same for the progressives on other issues. It defies reason that any one party or school of thought is going to be right 100% of the time on everything. So, let's demonstrate a bit of humility. Try letting your religious convictions drive your political beliefs instead of vice versa. This has the effect of grounding your politics in a moral sensibility and takes away some of the harshness. If you're not religious, let your larger moral framework drive your politics rather than vice versa.
Be consistent in this. If adultery is wrong, it's equally wrong when it's a Republican or Democrat and the penalty ought to be the same. Period.
Please, if you are a Mormon, take this seriously. I will admit a pet peeve of mine is people who use the Church's teachings to buttress their political positions--and then conveniently ignore other teachings that don't square so well. Maddening.
4. Don't rejoice in another person's tragedy. If your primary reaction to someone's misfortune is that it advances your cause, or embarrasses your opponents, you are losing your humanity.
5. Don't arrogate to yourself the power to define the parameters of the debate. This happens a lot with individual people basically deciding that they simply won't accept ideological contradicting evidence and will simply not allow it rather than considering and responding to it. Don't scoff at the sincere, considered beliefs of others. If you end up attacking your opponent's personal traits or beliefs instead of his or her arguments, you are being intellectually dishonest and lazy.
These are all fairly simple things and I don't pretend they are deep or profound. However, to the extent I've applied them, they have had a profound effect in my own life.
I blogged the other day about why I am worried about what I think is an increasing lack of civility. You can read my reasons here. Today, I want to make a few suggestions about some modest steps anyone can take to help with this problem.
Here's the genesis of this: I have strong thoughts and convictions about politics. I also profess to worship a loving God and believe that all humanity are my brothers and sisters. I noticed, several years ago, that my political feelings were leading me to be angry, sarcastic, and suspicious of people. As I thought about this, I realized I wasn't the only one. It's a pandemic, and let's be honest: it's on both the left and right.
I decided that I was going to try to become more civil and respectful. I wanted to live the old cliche and find a way to disagree without being disagreeable. So, I took several small steps. Baby steps, you might say. But I found that they were helpful and they had a cumulative effect on me.
I haven't changed my opinions or views. But I have changed the way I view others, and that has had a positive effect on me. I think I am more civil to others. But, just as importantly, I am different. I feel more temperate, more balanced. I'm more confident expressing my views because they are thoughtful conclusions that don't rely on invective, sarcasm or bombast. In other words, civility has essentially polished and refined my views--burning away the dross. So, I'm not advocating being mushy and checking your opinions at the door. To the contrary, I'm suggesting ways to engage in dialogue and debate without being destructive.
Here are the things I've found helpful. I'm not naive enough to believe that these are silver bullets or fairy dust, but they've made a big difference in my own experience.
1. Use proper titles of people with whom you disagree. President Obama--not Obama. Speaker Boehner. Justice, Senator, Governor, Representative, Secretary, Mr,. Mrs., Ms. It's amazing what a difference this makes. This week, I've been teaching my musical theatre students how emphasis on a single word can change or enhance the meaning of a song. Tiny things make huge interpretive differences. Using titles automatically helps temper discussion.
2. Use the names your ideological opponents choose for themselves. If someone opposes abortion, chances are they are deeply concerned about unborn life. I know a lot of these folks and they really are acting on that concern. Calling them "anti-choice" or "anti-woman" is just not accurate. Likewise, I know very few people who think abortion is just a wonderful thing. The pro-choice people I know are exactly that--they have concluded that personal freedom is important. They aren't murderers.
In the old days, when a gentleman's honor was impugned, he would challenge the offender to a duel. The one who was challenged often chose the weapons. It was the code.
Why not update this code? Let's disagree all we want to about important issues. But how about letting our opponents choose the terms by which they want to be known? If someone styles themself pro-life or pro-choice, then let's do the courtesy of granting them that title. Then, we can let the merits of our argument carry the day instead of trying to score cheap points by giving them names that reflect shallow stereotypes. The problem with defining our opponents is that we then judge their motives--which we really can't do. Which leads to the next item--
3. Assume good faith. I know people who want the government to raise taxes. I know people who want the government to slash taxes. Both parties are sure that their prescription will help the economy and is the morally right and reasonably sound thing to do. The tax-raisers are not socialists. The tax-cutters are not wanting to throw old people out on the street.
Let's assume that our opponents are people like us--good people who are advocating for what they really believe is best. Then, let's argue strenuously about which policies are best. However, the quality of the argument is enhanced because I am saying, "This policy is bad because abc" instead of "This person is bad because xyz." This approach is more difficult because it requires thought, study, facts, and persuasion. The other approach is incredibly lazy--not to mention corrosive.
Ironically, casting aspersions on our opponents makes it difficult to effectively point out real evil. If Bush or Obama are Hitler/Stalin/the Devil, then those words cease to mean anything and when a real Hitler comes along, our language is impotent and we are unable to combat genuine evil.
4. Connected with number 3, don't define your opponents by their most extreme allies. Are there bigots who hate gay people? Yes. Does that make everyone who has concerns about gay marriage a bigot? No. Just as not everyone who is pro-choice relishes the thought of killing babies. Are there some gay activists who want to push society into a radical gay agenda? Yes. But are there also a lot of gay people who sincerely want to be married and have no intention of destroying traditional marriage? Yes.
The fact that a wacko votes for the same person as me doesn't make me crazy. Every--and I mean EVERY--group has extreme elements in them. I would wager that everyone of us belongs to some group in which there is someone who makes us cringe a bit--someone we don't really endorse. But, in our culture wars today, we take the most extreme examples of the other side and hold them up as if they are the norm. It's sloppy and lazy and it betrays either a lack of confidence in the virtue and power of our own arguments and positions or else a mean-spiritedness that is disturbing.
Okay, I have a few more suggestions, I'll post them later.
Okay, want to know what really worries me? Not hyper-inflation or national default, not global warming or even Islamic terrorists. Don't get me wrong--all of these are sobering and cause me concern. However, Americans have faced--and conquered--worse challenges in the past and I believe that our united efforts could win the day against the litany of our current woes.
The thing that really scares me is the "united" part. I worry that we, as a country, are becoming so deeply polarized and divided that uniting on much of anything will prove to be impossible.
I have strong convictions on our whole range of current issues, and I'm convinced I'm right (if I weren't, then I'd have different opinions, right?). I'm not advocating that we pretend we don't have opinions or differences. That's nothing new. American history is full of spirited, sharp-elbowed discussion, even contention. But still, in the past, when push came to shove, we were generally able to rally around a common cause and find our fundamental commonalities as Americans.
This is, I fear, fading. We see every issue through partisan lenses--again not new, necessarily. But what is new, as least in my opinion, is that there is a louder and louder yelling at each other rather than an honest debate and exchange of ideas. We have heated, knock-down, drag-out presidential elections where we pursue a scorched earth policy against opponents. 51% of the people vote for a candidate and immediately, the other 49% start doing every thing they can to diminish and demean the person who won. Liberals did it to Bush and Conservatives are doing it to Obama--and each side believes they are absolutely justified. Perhaps, perhaps not, but carried to it's logical end, isn't this the recipe for chaos eventually?
I'm worried that we are slowly, surely, and consistently shredding the fabric of our body politic, the common bonds that transcend our political differences. I worry that we may somehow solve all our problems--only to find that we are essentially two nations with irreconcilable differences.
One of the glories of America is the fact that people of all religions, races, creeds, and backgrounds were historically able to find a common identity or at least portions of a common identity. In the Venn diagram of our national character, there were historically a few overlapping areas.
Now, it seems like there are fewer ovelapping areas. That's where civility comes in.
In my opinion, civility and respect are the glue that can hold us together when we encounter the gaps in the Venn diagram--the places we don't have anything in common.
But instead, we have moved from disagreeing with each other's opinions and ideas to demonizing each other's intentions.
Civility, I hasten to add, has to be a real, two-way street. It has been recently abused--grossly so--as a club to beat one's political opponents. Civility is good sauce for the goose and gander. And let's be honest: both sides employ rhetoric that is over the top.
Civility, in addition to being a Christian virtue I think everyone should strive for, is simultaneously a mark of confidence and humility. The civil citizen is confident in his ideas--he doesn't need bombast to make a point because he believes his ideas are superior. But he is also humble enough to realize that his best opinion may still miss something and that his greatest wisdom is still human and therefore fallible.
So, I'm starting a civility challenge. I'm going to take it, and I'm inviting anyone else who is concerned about the future to take it, too. I'm going to suggest some baby-steps for increasing civility in our day-to-day lives.
Be warned, though. It's not as easy as it sounds. As I've been trying to do this, I am surprised at how hard it is--how counter-intuitive and challenging. But it's very satisfying. I haven't changed my opinions, but they feel cleaner, healthier, and less toxic and I feel better about expressing them. Tune in next time for the suggestions since this post is already too long.
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