Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

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Me Hate You

Another day, another mass shooting. Another day, another sexual abuse scandal. Another day, another corruption scandal. Another day, another random outrage.

As much as we try to avert our eyes and focus on feel-good stories and videos of adorably cavorting puppies, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the frightening suspicion that a great many facets of our society are breaking down and raining catastrophe upon our heads. As we grope for answers to our problems, the cacophony of competing solutions is enough to make one’s head spin, and most boil down to either exponentially expanding our personal freedoms or rashly restricting them. Therefore, during any given week we will be excoriated for being either intolerant or too tolerant—and those who hold contrary views will present their disagreements in the most derisive and wounding terms possible.

Just this past week we were treated to multiple loud fights. A morning television host compared the religious beliefs of Vice President Pence to a mental illness. Another school mass shooting—this time in Florida—prompted some to liken gun control opponents to child murderers. We were asked to simultaneously celebrate the athletic achievements an Olympic athlete and condemn him for a documented instance of sexual harassment. These and so many other angry and injurious debates are the non-stop, jack-hammering background noise of our daily lives.

The frothing rage generated by President Trump’s proposal to reform the federal food assistance program, still generally referred to by many as “food stamps”, is a useful example of all that ails us today. The program is currently rife with bureaucratic red tape, exceedingly expensive to operate, and does not even meet the basic requirement of ensuring that those who need assistance are receiving the help that they actually need. Today the single largest category of “food” purchased with food stamps is soft drinks. Racing right behind are candies, cookies, chips, and other junk food.

It seems, therefore, completely reasonable to propose providing boxes of nutritious, domestically grown, shelf stable food—real food—to those who cannot provide for themselves or their families. After all, no one is going to be able to live a healthful and happy life on a diet of Pepsi and Doritos, which are food purchase choices supported by the current program. Although some would argue that the poor should have the same opportunity to cram their faces full of empty calories as do the affluent, this seems a perverse twisting of our idea of freedom in order to put hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of grocers and junk food manufacturers that are profiting from a system that actually causes great physical harm to those whom it was meant to help.

However, those who believe that the current program is too tolerant—providing the minimum nutrition at the maximum cost—find themselves hotly criticized by those who feel that insisting food assistance provide actual food is an intolerant restriction of a seemingly fundamental American freedom, the right to eat junk food. That we even find ourselves at loggerheads over common sense reforms meant to both reduce costs and improve nutritional outcomes is a sign of just how destructively—some might say self-destructively—partisan and toxic our political processes have become.

To provide high quality food to the needy seems a no-brainer, but it apparently is not. When reality itself is captive to one political or moral viewpoint or another, there seems little hope for solving many more pressing problems. Moreover, the inevitable result of spinning every bit of information to suit one agenda or another is the echo chamber of insults that we now occupy. It seems there are no longer two legitimate sides to any issue. Today it is that I’m 100% correct and you’re an idiot—who is ugly as well.

These corrosive—and fundamentally intolerant—interactions between those who hold differing views should be a red flag that we are careening toward a final breakdown of our democratic processes. If the word most commonly associated with government over a long period of time by the vast majority of Americans is “failure”, which poll after poll shows to be the case, that is a clear sign that our faith in the system has dissipated to a point that goes beyond worry—panic might be a more apt descriptor.

The collapse of our political and social discourse is not a “canary in a coal mine”. That canary fell of its perch quite a number of years ago and is stiff and cold on the ground. We are no longer disagreeing; everyone is in full attack mode 24/7 and prepared to do whatever is necessary to destroy those with the temerity to hold fast to values or ideas that differ from their own.

The core questions are really no longer ones regarding tolerance or intolerance for others or their ideas. Many of us simply need to look in the mirror and ask what is wrong with ourselves. Why are we so comfortable with denigrating those whose values, experiences, and judgments are different from our own? This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves if we are guilty of attacking when we might be more helpful by listening.

This problem has been growing worse for decades, and there is plenty of blame to spread around across the political spectrum. Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton presidency might recall the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster in 1993, a man who was widely considered an honest and decent person—perhaps too honest and decent for Washington. A line from his torn-up suicide note perhaps provided a terribly accurately foreshadowing of where we are today: “Here ruining people is considered sport.”

When we reach this point personally and politically, there is no place to go but further down into the muck and slime of personal attacks and sleazy innuendos masquerading as policy debates. We have many huge, difficult, and complex challenges ahead of us as a nation—none of which will be solved by continuing to throw mud balls at one another.

I am not optimistic, but I try my best to remain so. Perhaps our very human tendency to seek hope where there seems none will be what finally saves us from ourselves. Maybe.

In the meantime, enjoy your Pepsi and Doritos . . .

Has Big Government Killed Compromise?

I was reading a book the other day that discussed the internecine religious conflict that roiled England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Elizabeth I. Protestants and Catholics, each convinced their own values and doctrinal interpretations were right and good, fought an unyielding battle for control and supremacy over both government and nation, and neither side was the least interested in even the most basic compromises. Each conflict was filled with hatred and every speech—it would be impossible to call them discussions—was colored by apocalyptic visions of the catastrophic outcomes that would certainly result were the beliefs of the opposition allowed to gain ascendancy. It was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and region against region as each side scrambled to vanquish their blood enemies, who were, in point of fact, actually their fellow countrymen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

To say that many of the citizens of our nation seem to have a visceral and implacable dislike for one another is stating the obvious. Worse yet, because so many are convinced that those who hold differing beliefs are inherently immoral—or even just plain evil—the possibilities for thoughtful and reasonable conversations between individuals of good will seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. I am thankful that today we restrict our public burnings to social media, but the outcome remains the same: hearts hardened, hatreds stoked, and minds irreversibly closed.

I like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises regarding the many issues that divide our nation at the present time, but I am beginning to suspect that this may be impossible more often than I would like to believe for a reason some might find unbelievable: the fantastically expanded powers of American government itself.

The questions of governance that now so bedevil us are inextricably tied to foundational issues of family, faith, patriotism, and the balance between rights and responsibilities—each jostling against the other and further complicating the next. Thankfully we can still (most of the time) decide where to put a highway off-ramp. However, now that government has grown to control almost all of our daily activities, we are crashing headlong into the problems inherent in allowing legislators, judges, and bureaucrats—today’s kings and queens—to monitor and control so many deeply personal facets of our lives. Any government that holds absolute power—even if many believe this power is being used for the greater good—creates a lot of problems, and this is where the analogy to Tudor England really takes hold.

Four hundred or so years ago perfectly sane English men and women were willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter one another because government held absolute power over an aspect of their lives as fundamental as their form of worship. Not surprisingly, every conflict was fought to the death—or nearly so—because to lose any battle was to lose every bit of freedom to live according one’s values and choose one’s own life path. American government has now amplified this power to control individual human choice to a degree that perhaps even the Tudor royalty would have found objectionable—and we should not be surprised by the results.

Most of us want government to provide basic services that ensure our health and safety, maintain critical infrastructure, and defend our borders—although even these can be subject to intense debate regarding principles and practices. However, when we inject the nearly limitless powers that government can grant itself into every aspect of our personal behavior and interpersonal interactions, we should not be overly surprised at the divisive results.

Just as the Tudor royalty discovered saving souls and creating a heaven on earth backed by the power of the crown turned out to be a fairly unpopular and ugly business, so do our Washington “royalty’s” many decrees that punish attitudes deemed unacceptable to the elite cause political, cultural, and social discord that fragments our nation and stymies even the most reasonable political compromises. Our leadership could take a lesson from Elizabeth I, the last of the great Tudor monarchs. Her true genius, which transformed her broken and divided nation into a world power, was to abandon state-mandated orthodoxy and tolerate a range of inherently conflicting beliefs during her long and successful reign.

The lesson of human history is clear to any who cares to look: Nations typically flourish when they allow their people to believe as they please with only minimal common sense restraints on their behavior. If you want to understand the root cause of our inability to cooperate, you need only look inside the confines of Washington, D.C. for the answer. A great many Americans would be very pleased if those now occupying that dysfunctional zip code would just leave us alone and focus on delivering those basic services they have neglected while busying themselves with telling everyone how they should think and live.

We’re just fine with figuring it all out for ourselves, thank you. In fact, we’ll probably do a much better job at the fraction of the cost—and with a fraction of the anger. We folks in flyover country are a lot smarter and more sensible than the Washington crowd of social engineers and scolds, and we could probably teach the D.C. royalty a lesson or two—if they ever bothered to listen to what the peasants have to say.

Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.

 

We Need To Remember We Are All Americans

 

Here in America we have managed to create a vibrant and enduring government of interlocking local, state, and federal systems that over the centuries have provided an unprecedented degree of prosperity and security and helped our nation and citizens navigate both crises and changes. Our never-ending fussing, feuding, and fighting over the shape, scope, and expense of government has helped to create a nation that is the envy of the world, but our successes have not come without pain, heartache—and even bloody civil war.

However, our relationship with our government seems to have become dramatically strained—and estranged—over the past few decades, and many now wonder how we will emerge from our current conflicts unscathed and whole. In order to get to the root of the all-encompassing sense of dissatisfaction and unease that plagues our country today, the question that we must address seems to be a very basic one: Can our government hope to obtain the consent of the governed when our citizens now embrace such widely varying—and perhaps fundamentally irreconcilable—ideals? Are secessionist movements in states such as California signs of healthy debate or worrisome symptoms of political, social, and cultural fragmentation that could eventually rend our nation?

America has always been a country rife with contradictions. We are a nation peopled by immigrants and their descendants, yet we have always imposed limitations on immigration. We are a nation whose founding documents extol freedom and liberty, yet we permitted indentured servitude and legalized outright slavery when we finally gained our independence from England. We claim to support democracy around the world, yet we often have found it convenient to tolerate tyrants. We believe ourselves to be the most peaceful of people, yet we have spilled—and continue to spill—much blood abroad.

Perhaps a necessary part of being an American is to more often—and more insistently—remind ourselves that we are inherently flawed because we are human. To expect perfection is to perhaps forget our earthly limitations. As hard as we have tried to live up to the noblest ideals of our nation, we have not always been successful, but one could reasonably and persuasively argue that no nation in history has ever worked longer and harder to surmount its weaknesses and mistakes. As a result, we are generally able to both acknowledge our errors and celebrate our achievements. It is, in fact, often the case that each are simply two sides of the same American coin, and the more sensible among us recognize this maddening conundrum.

There is, unfortunately, a tendency today among many to see only one side of this coin. Some see reasonable restrictions on immigration—and the enforcement of existing laws—as outright hatred and nothing but. Others see a tragic past of slavery but cannot acknowledge the equally tragic civil war that both ended it and forged a new national identity. More than a few condemn us for failing to topple every dictator, yet they conveniently forget the barriers that sometimes make this impossible. Too many excoriate our country for making wars, but they refuse to credit the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces that ensure the freedom to complain about our government and its policies—and have provided this same privilege for many millions more around the world. Perhaps those who focus so intently upon the contradictions within our history should also take a look at the contradictions within their own hot emotional reactions and cold academic analyses. To casually and cruelly deride those who insist upon the importance of our nationhood as an expression of pride and place is to disrespect those who choose to wave the flag. Worse yet, this sort of blind hatred of our country fails to recognize the power of our national identity to bind us together as a people—and incorrectly conflates patriotism with fascism.

No matter how one feels about President Trump’s policies or personality, it must be acknowledged that a particular section of his Inaugural Address, which was widely panned by many smug media commentators, was absolutely correct: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” I realize that patriotism is today greeted by some with the same incredulity and confusion that an 11 year old feels when encountering a rotary dial phone, but focusing more on our shared purpose rather than obsessing over our inevitable differences might provide a way out of the echo chamber of identity politics that now confounds us. If all parties in a negotiation can act like Americans who have America’s best interests at heart, we may still be able to pull together and solve our many problems. However, should we continue to approach one another like competing armies intent on obliterating an enemy, we can expect—and likely deserve—nothing more than the anger and gridlock that stymies even the most judicious efforts at dialogue and reform.

Americans have over the past couple of centuries enshrined the concept of government as a creation of the common consent of the governed. Although the leaders we select may occasionally be creatures of entrenched political and economic interests who see representative government as nothing more than a ready mechanism for power, profit, and plunder—or are simply outright fools not worthy of our trust—we have learned that elections are by far the best method available to select whom we want to govern. We need to remember that the ballot box is an expression of our national priorities, not a place for our petty vendettas to play out. Perhaps we are today too oddly jaded, too overly sophisticated, and too bizarrely suspicious of one another to do anything other than celebrate our treasured individuality. If this is so, we likely deserve the dismal future of governmental failure peeking out over the horizon because we can’t see beyond the tips of our own precious noses—and remember that we are all Americans.

I hope we can stop treating our neighbors across our nation as strangers and enemies. The incredible efforts of those struggling to deal with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey should be a lesson to us all. Moreover, we should recognize that, for all its problems both past and present, our government—federal, state, and local—is doing incredible work to help the victims of this storm regroup and recover. We can—and must—build upon this fine example of sacrifice, hard work, and cooperation to deal with the many other problems facing our nation. To continue to throw rocks at one another because our values or priorities may differ is to wallow if what separates us rather than focus on the responsibilities we all have to our country and to one another.