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.

 

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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.

A Few Words About Events In Charlottesville

Given the superheated national dialogue regarding the conflict, violence, injuries, and deaths surrounding the “Unite The Right” rally that turned a lovely college town in Virginia into a battleground, I approach this topic with some trepidation. I worry that offering my thoughts will turn me into a target for trolls. I am frustrated that being a white male turns my opinions on many topics into an opportunity for someone to chastise me for my white privilege—which is a fairly annoying way to tell me that my viewpoints are not worth considering. I am concerned that somebody whom I have never met and who knows nothing about my life, my experiences, or my values will “dox” me, enable harassment at my home and workplace, and brand me as a bigot and hater around the world thanks to the global reach of social media—leaving me with absolutely no hope of redeeming myself through reasoned discussion.

Deep breath….

  1. The white supremacists marching and shouting in Charlottesville—all 500 of them, according the Associated Press—need to engage in some serious soul-searching. If these kinds of twisted and hateful thoughts are your life’s preoccupation, you’ve got some major personal issues to resolve.
  2. The bonehead who drove his car into a crowd deserves nothing but our contempt.
  3. The young woman who was killed is a tragic victim. My condolences go out to her family and friends.
  4. The deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash is a senseless, unnecessary accident that diminishes us all.
  5. Any attempt to use these terrible events for political advantage should be resisted. This will do absolutely nothing but harden hearts and close minds.
  6. As impossible as it may be for some to believe, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable, caring, and respectful people who find it immensely frustrating that the idiotic actions of the very few are consuming the attention of the many. It is also worth asking whether the intense interest of the mass media in this kind of moronic behavior further encourages and legitimizes it.
  7. Larger lessons about the attitudes of our nation cannot be gleaned from the actions of a tiny group of losers. Just as I derived no useful understanding about America or Americans from the sniper murders of five Dallas police officers last year, I see the confrontation in Charlottesville as nothing more than an example of the sad power of crazy, stupid, and angry people to hurt the innocent.
  8. I agree with a quote widely attributed to M.K. Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” As tempting—and perhaps personally satisfying—as it might be for the “Antifa” (Anti-Fascist) counter-demonstrators to punch, kick, and shove those espousing hatred, it is an urge that must be resisted. Of course, those lining up to fight back against idiocy might find this terribly unfair, but if you want to occupy the moral high ground, you have to demonstrate more restraint and maturity than the average six year old child.

The big picture moral of the story here seems straightforward enough. We need to keep in mind that those who are lost, angry, and embittered can cause great harm to others. Community mental health services might help some get their lives back on track, but most cuckoos are destined to remain cuckoos no matter what we may try to do to help them. Sad to say, therapy and medication have limited power to change hearts and minds warped by hatred.

In the final analysis we best serve ourselves and the interests of our nation by being alert to problems, open to thoughtful discussion, and firm in our resolve to never let fringe groups dominate our public spaces or private thoughts. Giving too much attention and credence to the rantings of extremists of any sort gives them much more power over our lives than they deserve. We should obviously not ignore virulent racists for the simple reason that we should never ignore any problem in our communities, but we need to avoid generalizing the bizarre and hurtful behavior of a few individuals to our entire country and its people because by so doing we only create problems where they might not exist, turning all interactions into ones fraught with suspicion or fear—and that would be a victory for those whose lives are consumed by hatred.

 

 

Can We Survive If “The Center” Is Gone?

We are all defined by our life experiences.

Wherever we grow up, whatever individual circumstances shape our lives, and whomever we interact with all combine to form our perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we live. Moreover, understanding and sharing our life stories can instruct—and sometimes inspire—others. To forget the influences that made us who we are is to, in a sense, forget ourselves, and our personal narratives also help to enhance our understanding of history by giving it a human face. This all makes it important to collect, preserve, and celebrate our life stories and the life stories of those around us.

For example, when I was growing up, one of my favorite books was Reach For The Sky by Paul Brickhill. This account of the life of Douglas Bader, a Royal Air Force pilot who lost both of his legs in an airplane crash, was forced to leave the service on disability—and yet persevered to return the R.A.F. and become one of Britain’s greatest military leaders and fighter aces during World War II—is an amazing tribute to both personal bravery and resilience under the most difficult of life circumstances. It certainly put whatever adolescent concerns I might have had about a stray pimple in its proper perspective and taught me a valuable lesson about never giving up no matter what obstacles life or fate might throw in your path.

Globally speaking, personal narratives—or at least the illusion of them—have been both entertainment and moral instruction since the dawn of civilization. The Iliad and The Odyssey, Mahabharata, The Holy Bible, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Le Morte D’Arthur, and so manyothers have taught countless generations right from wrong, honor from disgrace, and good from evil. These narratives and others like them, whether sacred text or epic tale, have served as the essential glue binding together societies, nations, continents, and our entire planet by both transmitting shared values and creating institutions that have served as the foundations of governance and justice up until the present day. To put it plainly, without the many life lessons gleaned from these texts and our reactions to them, who we are today would simply not exist.

Today we live in the golden age of the personal narrative, and the advent of powerful and omnipresent technology now allows us to share our stories with a worldwide audience. For perhaps the first time in human history all voices can be heard, all stories shared, and all lives celebrated via an iPhone or an Internet connection. What an amazing world it is.

However, the downside of this multiplicity of voices and viewpoints is that our common cultures and shared values are being rapidly obliterated by the combined opinions of an entire planet of individuals who are all asserting the primacy and correctness of their particular needs and wants. Now more people than ever—especially those who live in our large urban media centers—essentially curate their own idiosyncratic set of personal values from all that is available. Given the infinite possibilities inherent in the cafeteria-style morality now available via Google, that which separates or unites many people is less dependent that ever on national boundaries, traditional cultural beliefs, or religious institutions. There is instead a new globalized system in their places bypassing and supplanting that which bound us to our immediate neighbors for many, many previous centuries.

Given that traditions and institutions that once acted as arbiters and guidelines regarding taste and social norms have now been discarded in favor of what could—with perhaps a trace of irony—be called “crowdsourced individuality”, we find that those most comfortable with the norms of this fluid and ever-changing milieu—actors, entertainers, and media personalities—are now most often called upon to pronounce judgment on the issues facing us. What is truly remarkable about the world we live in today is that celebrities are routinely asked to offer opinions on matters of war and peace, the stewardship of resources, international diplomacy, immigration policy, and a host of other issues—and their opinions are dutifully reported as actual news on front pages around the globe. Think carefully for a moment: Do you recall anyone checking with Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn before we declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor? Did President Kennedy worry whether Elvis was on his side during the Cuban Missile Crisis? That which, if you stop a moment to think, is utterly bizarre is now quite commonplace.

Unsurprisingly, some find shrugging off the societal shackles of the many millennia incredibly liberating—and insist that we all celebrate their personal paths toward whatever lifestyles or experiences will maximize their happiness. However, others obviously find the erasure of long-held cultural and moral norms to be either stressful or troubling. Nonetheless, ditching all that created a common humanity so a relative few can pursue their personal journeys does not seem a concern for the media elites that now drive our national conversations. Considering the matter broadly, we could question whether we are living a wonderful moment in human history or acting as the avatars of the end of national, cultural, and societal cohesion—but few seem to care to inquire further regarding this.

So this is where we are today. Our personal narratives and individual judgments have now become the unassailable—and sole—guides to how to live life for an ever growing portion of our global population. Therefore, conversations about what is right or wrong, honorable or disgraceful, and good or evil have become impossible. In fact, merely to assert that some behavior is right, wrong, honorable, disgraceful, good, or evil is to make a judgement about someone else’s idiosyncratic curation of their values that is often considered insulting or intolerant, which makes reasoned discussions about any issue or concern very, very difficult indeed.

I am not against embracing our personal narratives or pursuing personal self-fulfillment; I am, however, concerned that our zeal for elevating the needs of the individual over that of the group is a prescription for the unending paralysis of direction and purpose—at a time when definitive and perhaps painful actions are needed to meet a host of challenges. There will, given the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our nation and world, be a time in the very near future when cooperative sacrifices will be necessary for the common good, and I am not at all certain we are going to be able to muster up anything beyond endless bickering about the solutions—if we can even manage to agree on the problems. With apologies to William Butler Yeats, no civilization can continue to exist unless a boring, stable—and perhaps to some slightly judgmental—center is allowed to hold.

Is it really a problem that we are fixated with individual stories and personal dramas that grab our attention rather than national and global matters that will assuredly impact our country? Perhaps some comparisons will prove instructive. Think just a moment, for example, about the time wasted on news articles about the age disparity between the new President of France and his wife versus the coverage of the pension crisis right here in the United States. Have you heard more about recent—and ominous—test firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea or the marital or financial woes of any one of a dozen Hollywood stars? Would it, sad to say, be easier for most Americans to name the nine starters on their favorite baseball team or the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court?

We might be able to muddle along wrapped in our oblivious self-absorption a bit longer, but I fear a day of reckoning is at hand that we are wholly unprepared to meet because many of us can see no further than the tips of our own lovely noses. This will be too bad for us—and for the generations to follow who will likely be stuck with cleaning up the many problems we happily ignored while updating our Facebook pages.

In Defense Of Free Speech

It would not have occurred to me a decade or so ago that I would ever have to assert my support for the right of an American to express an opinion. One of the wonders of living in the United States—and, in fact, likely our greatest strength—is our free-wheeling, brash, chaotic, and amazingly rich discourse regarding ourselves, our nation, and the world around us. Whether our opinions were rude, lewd, or full of attitude, it was always presumed to be our inalienable right to express them without fear of retribution.

Apparently, this is no longer the case.

Now that speech codes on our college campuses have devolved into “shut up codes” suppressing ideas that don’t fit into somebody’s idea of tolerance (I still shake my head at the inherent irony of this), social media is used as a mechanism to publicly shame those who don’t conform, and mainstream media outlets readily characterize anyone who disagrees with progressive orthodoxy as a bigot, the state of free speech in America seems surprisingly fragile.

Recent violent confrontations at Berkeley (ironically enough, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s) and Middlebury College call into question the very existence of reasoned debate when a few are empowered to simply “shut down” dissenting viewpoints that they deem “hate speech”. Aside from the obvious question of where the line between hate speech and differing opinions is supposed to be—some broadly define hate speech to be virtually anything that might diverge from their own viewpoints and cause the apparently intense discomfort of self-reflection or doubt—one has to wonder how we have reached the point where shockingly many celebrate the practice of censorship by loud, threatening mobs. As scary as some aspects of our contemporary political scene might be, I find people shouting down speakers a great deal more frightening—especially when I consider the historical antecedents of such actions.

If you disagree with someone’s ideas, please listen respectfully—and explain your own viewpoint with a minimum of personal attacks. As personally satisfying as some might find it to “argue through insult”, a civil society requires civil conversations.

Dehumanizing those with differing opinions only invites violent speech—and perhaps violent action—because it communicates that those individuals are not worthy of even the most basic respect. Words have consequences, but the manner in which they are spoken to one another also is important. Those who consider common courtesy a mere bourgeois affectation would do well to remember those times in human history when it was considered appropriate to strip basic human dignity from others because “they deserved it”.

Societies that fail to ensure all their members have a voice generally come to grief, and those individuals who insist that they—and only they—have the right answer to what ails society or the world often have been the enablers of the most brutish episodes in the history of civilization. We would do well to remember this.