Citizenship and Conversation in a Disjointed Time
By Neal Lemery
In this pandemic year, our craving for “normal” pushes back against the new rules of social interaction. What lies ahead of us grows even murkier. Uncertainty is the new mantra of who we are as a society, and where we are going with our own out of sorts lives. Simple acts of normalcy such as going to school, shopping for groceries, dinner with friends, and a weekend getaway take on all the traits of unpredictability.
Nothing seems routine anymore. The old patterns of life now can be simply “paused”, the calendar becoming a mess of cross outs, erasures, and question marks.
Sound medical advice, scientific wisdom and evidence-based practices run the risk of being politicized in loud, partisan fashion. Wearing a mask at the grocery store now can be a political statement. Nuances and logical development of analysis are discarded if favor of “right vs wrong” and “us vs them” viewpoints. We don’t seem to be able to even agree to disagree or admit we need more information.
Serious discussions about racism and discrimination, the role of police, and how we look at history are now mixed into the swirl of our pandemic responses and thinking. Political rhetoric grows more heated and polarized. “Them” and “us”, “right” and “wrong”, “liberal” and “conservative” are becoming the short slogans that can fit on a baseball cap. Efforts to simplify and quickly label perspectives and opinions are pushing out the deep discussions on public policy and the rich stew of community discourse and public debate that are at the heart of a healthy democracy.
Instead, we are experiencing a “shoot from the hip” attitude, with no room for civilized conversation and thought. Being persuasive and convincing in one’s opinions and views is replaced by an angrily shouted slogan and no room for disagreement, however polite or thoughtful.
We are all hopefully looking for a sense of civility, order and normalcy in our lives. I find myself weighed down by all the “pausing” of social life, and the angry, strident rhetoric of public opinion. Sarcasm and rage, and downright nastiness and vitriol now seem to occupy center stage in public forums. That approach to our collective life is toxic and exhausting.
I should remember that, perhaps, I might be wrong in my views, or that the situation is more complex and requires more information than I have been willing to admit. Like any effective theologian, scientist, or teacher, I just might not have all the facts, and might not be considering other ways to look at an issue. I might not have all the answers. And, I might even be wrong.
Many turn to social media to air their own views or the rant of their favorite commentator of the day. In their role as a publisher and editor in the public forum, a significant number of Americans ignore their responsibility to be factual, to educate, and to add to thoughtful debate that will improve our society. Be a builder, not a destroyer. If you are going to be a journalist of sorts on the public stage, then act like a professional. It is a public trust.
We have “paused” the democratic ideal of thoughtfully listening to others. We aren’t doing a good job weighing the viewpoints of others, and striving to achieve a collective, informed response and thoughtful viewpoints. Instead, the quick opinion, shot from the hip, seasoned with sarcasm and hostility, dominates. Public conversations have turned into shouting matches. Snarky slogans and nasty put downs of others fill our screens and public interactions. We often forget that “conversation” means a respectful interplay and heartfelt communication.
Our freedoms of speech and expression are precious and should be cherished. And with freedom comes responsibility.