Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vilification v. Civil Discourse

In recent posts, I’ve spoken out against the trend towards vilifying political opponents, as well as the break-down in civil discourse. In my last post about Representative Michele Bachmann, I deliberately opted to not write about my concern for her politics and polarizing rhetoric. I want to be clear about my rationale in deciding to not dwell on the negative and to focus instead on common ground. It is not because I advocate ignoring destructive political tactics to simply extend a hand across the aisle to sing “Kumbaya.” It is a lovely song, but that approach does not really get us anywhere. However, plenty of folks have already documented and spoken out against Representative Bachmann’s inflammatory rhetoric. There is no need for me to tread again on that same ground. Instead, I was trying to do something different that we don’t see enough in our current political climate. I was trying to see the congresswoman (someone with whom I disagree on a host of issues) as a human being and not as evil incarnate.

Vilification is defined as “to speak ill of; defame; slander.” “Defame” means “to attack the good name or reputation of, as by uttering or publishing maliciously or falsely anything injurious; slander or libel; calumniate.” Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve understood the term “vilification” to be related to the term “villain,” which has been defined as “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.”

With this understanding of the term “vilification,” I was trying to bring attention to the trend in recent years of speaking pejoratively about political opponents. These days, people routinely lob personal attacks against those, with whom they have political disagreement. Those on the other side of the aisle are called Nazis or Socialists. Alternately they are derided as crazy and/or of poor character.

We Americans do not debate ideas. We don’t even listen to each other. We just vilify anyone who does agree with us because they are wrong, they are bad, they are evil. It is all black or white. Many in our society never even consider the possibility of common ground. A person is either on the right side (no pun intended) or the wrong side. It is all very clear. Everything is very easily divided. Including our society.

That is not a healthy way for a democratic nation to operate. I suppose such vilification and division would be fine if we lived in a totalitarian dictatorship where the few folks in charge with an open-ended reign made all the decisions without consulting anyone else. But thank goodness we live under a different political system.

Because our government requires people from different parts of the country and different backgrounds to work together to make decisions collectively, it is absolutely critical that we take time to listen, to hear what the other person is saying and to understand their concerns. We’re not a homogenous society, so we’re not all going to agree 100% of the time. That is ok. We have to find a way to work through disagreements. We have to find common ground to make decisions about how we will be governed. And we have to be good losers. When we don’t get our way, when we lose an election, or a bill we endorse doesn’t pass, it cannot be the end of the world and consume us. When we do get our way, however, we should not let the power go to our heads. We should not let a short term “win” be an excuse for trampling our political opponents.

In my opinion, as a Christ follower, I think that as we’re trying to work through disagreements and find common ground, an overarching value we should embrace is the inherent dignity of each human being. As a Christian, I believe a loving, omnipotent and faithful God gave us this planet and gave each of us life. I believe that we human beings are God’s crowning achievement and glory amidst all his wondrous creation. God so loved each and every one of us that he sacrificed his one and only Son. God’s love extends to the lawmakers in Washington and to the street people trying to stay warm by sleeping on a grate a few miles from the Capitol. God so loves the firefighter who selflessly risks his own life to save others, but God equally loves the sociopath who heartlessly murders innocents causing pain, trauma and anguish. As a Christian, my God loves the brilliant atheist scientist, the little child saying her prayers at night, and the woman with Down’s syndrome who bags my food at the local grocery store. God loves the greedy investment banker living in an overpriced Manhattan loft, as well as the undocumented immigrant who risks exploitation and his very life to enter the U.S. to earn a little money to support his desperate family in Mexico. God loves each one of us, no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or how the world does (or does not) value us. As a Christ follower, I would hope and I would encourage that we’d all embrace that knowledge when we are discussing politics.

Genesis 1:26-27 (New American Standard Version)

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

John 3:16 (The Message)

"This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”

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