Sunday, February 20, 2011

Political Speech

As an American who is now also a Canadian, politics is a subject I venture into with trepidation. It is easier to simply get in trouble than to say anything constructive. Nevertheless, here is one thought only, echoing some thoughts my sister has expressed in her own blog: Resolved, that we state our position without recourse to fear-mongering.

Using fear is a potent weapon, more common south of the border than here in Canada. (Our Canadian version of “fear” is to end an argument by saying, “But that’s what they do in the USA!”) Voices on the right assure that Obama is the end of democracy as we know it and seek to rally the faithful against the greatest threat that America has ever seen. A few short years ago voices on the left claimed just as shrilly that Bush had made us a joke to the rest of the civilized world: his lack of intelligence and generally belligerent posture would destroy us if we didn’t vote him out.

There are real issues at stake: Bush’s brand of international policy was too aggressive for me; Obama’s commitment to universally-available health care costs too much for some Americans. But the use of fear as a primary weapon makes any real discussion of the issues almost impossible.

I noted this factor in, of all places, the American government’s response to the crisis turned victory in Cairo. I was driving and tuned in the AM radio. Rush Limbaugh’s voice filled the car – with his firm belief that Obama was primarily to blame for all that has gone wrong in Egypt. Say what? The only way that he could conclude that Obama was to blame for something that had almost nothing to do with him was by starting with the premiss that Obama is to blame for everything – a virtual anti-Christ. I tuned in to the next station as quickly as I could: 94.3 with music of the 60s and the 70s, restoring some sanity in my Corolla headed north on route 59.

What frustrates me in these conversations is the fact that voices on the left and voices on the right have significant contributions to make to discussion of the issues facing the USA. Social conservatives can help bring sense to abortion rights that trump any right of the unborn. Social liberals can help bring sanity to fiscal policies that leave the marginalised stuck outside the system. Fiscal conservatives can help us to find ways to avoid national bankruptcy. Libertarians can help us to reign in government control of every area of life. Classic liberals can help us find more progressive ways for the government to help in every area of life.

But a constructive discussion can take place only when the participants show respect for each other, listen carefully to each other, express their own viewpoint without using fear as a weapon, and recognize their own limited grasp of the whole picture.

I apply this critique to myself in the area of climate change. Those who see the danger of planetary destruction are as likely to try to scare everyone else into some sort of sanity by threatening doomsday if we don’t use long-life bulbs, recycle everything, take to bicycles, and eat locally. Well, the dangers are real; but it does not follow that those who are not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity therefore hate the planet. Or that they will change their actions if scared enough.

Better than trying to scare everyone is a straightforward description of one’s position. In my case, that takes the form of asking the question: How should a Christian treat God’s creation? One can give positive suggestions, with passing reference to the problems – rather than focussing on the problems and persuading everyone to become either profoundly depressed or a complete sceptic.

So, resolved: That we state our position without recourse to fear-mongering. Speak with respect, with passion, with a real belief that the other is a real person who also cares deeply about life and about what is good. Disagreeing with others is fine, healthy even. Trying to destroy the other is not.

Postscript: Part of my commitment to constructive speech is to avoid the “fair and balanced” claim of FOXNews or the “no rant no slant” claim of NPR News. We all have a point of view: Simple honesty allows us to express it, and respect allows us to benefit from the perspectives of other people.

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