Redeeming our Uncivil Discourse

Redeeming our Uncivil Discourse March 8, 2016

photo credit: Republican Party debate stage via photopin (license)
photo credit: Republican Party debate stage via photopin (license)

Last week’s Republican debate was a terrible embarrassment and I’m glad I didn’t let my children watch it. The childish rhetoric and base insults took our political discourse to a new low. We should not be surprised though, because if you are paying attention you will see that on social media, in public meetings, and online forums dialogue disintegrates into name calling in the blink of an eye. What we see from our politicians is merely a reflection of the way we interact with each other in everyday life. As I’ve been pondering our how far our civil discourse has fallen, a few stories have come to mind which get to the root of the reason for much of our incivility.

Recently someone drafted me to help count votes for our neighborhood Homeowner Association’s elections. Apparently there has been much controversy about our HOA board in the last year and there are some strong feelings on each side. We counted votes one Saturday morning and the next day I attended our HOA’s annual meeting where the results were announced. Someone immediately yelled, “recount” and the next few days saw consistent accusations of wrongdoing hurled at those of us who counted votes in a private Facebook group. The next week a small group recounted the votes and someone notified us that we made a mistake on one ballot which changed the results of the election. The next day I heard members of this private group accused those of us who counted votes of dishonesty and alleged that we had an agenda behind our mistake. As I listened to the content of these accusations in disbelief the thought kept running through my mind, “anyone who knows me would know I would not take part in rigging an HOA election.” The people making the accusations didn’t know any of us, so they could accuse away with no thought for the damage they might inflict on those on the receiving end of these insults.

Throughout my lifetime I have seen evangelical Christians increasingly portrayed in a negative light on television and in news reports. This has been especially true in the last few years with the debates over abortion and gay marriage becoming more heated. The things I have read about evangelicals in major publications in the United States bear no resemblance to what I or the many evangelical Christians I know believe or are motivated by. This has always puzzled me, but then last year a White House correspondent for a major news outlet tweeted that he does not know any evangelical Christians under 35. This man who writes about politics for a living, does not know anyone his age who represents a significant portion of this nation’s citizens. I doubt he is alone in this predicament, and it should not surprise us that the news media often misrepresents evangelicals when writers for major papers do not know any.

When you know someone, you feel more responsible for the way you talk about and treat them. When you know someone’s family, story, and values you must think more seriously about the ramifications before you mistreat them or speak falsely about them. There are real and actual consequences for your lies and/or harsh words. When you don’t know someone you don’t have to think about these things because they are not real people, but an idea or pixels on a screen.

Also, when you have friends who disagree with you, you cannot misrepresent their position and get away with it. When you have hardworking friends who support Bernie Sanders you cannot paint all of his supporters as bums who want a handout. When you have friends who think Black Lives Matter is raising many important questions you cannot in honestly say the movement is being driven by “thugs” and “hoodlums.” When you know kind and loving people who in good conscience oppose same-sex marriage, you must twist the truth to say all same-sex marriage opponents are hateful bigots.

Christians especially need to think about our increasing isolation from our neighbors and how this effects our interactions with other people. When Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself” he meant it. He intends for us to know our neighbors and to treat them with kindness, love, and respect. Contrary to a pastor I recently read who said his neighbors were those who “share my values and way of life,” our neighbor is the person most unlike us. This was the point Jesus made in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told in response to the question, “who is my neighbor.” What grows love for other people is frequent encounters with them and growing in understanding and empathy for them. When we continually isolate ourselves from anyone who does not create the bubble which echoes with my own opinions we are not going to grow in love for others.

As we increasingly don’t know our neighbors and don’t know people who hold different opinions from us, our discourse and interactions are only going to become more toxic. This will especially show itself in communities where a high percentage of the residents moved in from other places. If new residents only use an area because of the amenities it offers and don’t take an ownership stake in the community, they have no incentive to treat other people with respect. When we take ownership in our community, get to know our neighbors, and seek to better the community where we live we will treat our neighbors with a greater degree of love and respect.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch explains to Scout why he took the Tom Robinson case. He said if he didn’t do it and do it to the best of his ability he couldn’t look her in the face or expect her to mind again. She had experienced taunts from her friends at school because of his involvement in the case and would face more. As Atticus is coaching her on how to handle what she faces he says, “We’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” He knew what people were going to throw at him and his family, and he responded by telling his daughter that these were still their friends and this place was still their home. Imagine how radically our interactions with each other would change if we kept this perspective in mind. No matter how deeply we disagree about politics, theology, economics, or a host of other issues, we’re still friends and we’re still neighbors.

Maybe our anger and vitriol would die down a bit if we would turn off the TV, put our phones up on the shelf, shut our computers, and walked outside to talk to our neighbors. Maybe we would stop stereotyping, demeaning, and venting if we sat down across the table from people who live close to us but their ways of looking at life are a thousand miles away from ours. Maybe this all sounds naive, but isn’t it better than the road we are currently walking?

For Further Reading:
The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

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