It has become wildly popular these days to condemn the “tone” of political discourse in this country. While I am always in favor of any promotion of treating others with civility and respect, few things rub me the wrong way quite like news pundits and commentators wringing their hands over a situation they, in large part, helped to create. My problem with such calls for “playing nice” as we have heard in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting is the same problem I have with all misplaced moral indignation.
Whether it is the world media condemning Israel as if they were morally equivalent to groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, or Jon Stewart lecturing Tim Pawlenty on the concerns he has regarding the rancor and cynicism emanating from the Right, those complaining the loudest about the other sides’ “tone” are typically those who properly understand the situation (and its root causes) the least.
Americans are traditionally opinionated people. Our unique history, our representative form of government, and our economic freedoms are great facilitators of this fact. People in other, less free, countries would give anything to have our “problems” of tone as their own nation’s largest worry. Heck, even Americans from the 18th and 19th centuries would trade our climate of “harsh” rhetoric for the volatile world they lived, voted, and debated with their neighbors in.
It was during a recent viewing of the National Geographic Channel’s documentary The Real Abraham Lincoln that this whole subject was brought to a point of some clarity in my mind. I consider myself a fervent student of history, and our own history in particular. I’ve had all the same history classes that many of you sat through during high school and college, and yet how quickly even I can forget what a tumultuous time the 1860s truly were. How readily we dismiss the fact that 150 years ago our nation nearly tore itself apart because of divergent worldviews and conflicting stances on the political issues of the day.
Lincoln knew what real political “rancor” sounded like. He lived it. He ate, drank, and breathed it. It was everywhere and inescapable in his day. Young men were dying in battlefields on American soil as a result of it.
And yet we all consider that fight a necessary one. Contemporary conservatives and liberals alike recognize in the story of the fight to save the Union and free the slaves that sometimes strong words, and even stronger actions, are required if truth and justice are to prevail.
So where does that leave us? What does history – more specifically, American history – have to teach us about the state of our own discourse and dialogue today?
In short: we need softer hearts, and thicker skins.
Praise God that we don’t have a literal Civil War to deal with today. Thank the Lord that relatives aren’t killing relatives on battlefields across the Union because of Obamacare or School Choice. Keith Olbermann’s nastiest rant, Bill O’Reilly’s most arrogant retort, are nothing compared to a musket ball through the eyeball on the hills of Gettysburg or Antietam.
To compare the murder of six people at the hands of one deranged schizophrenic with the loss of roughly 500,000 Americans at the hands of their friends and neighbors is like comparing apples with some fruit no one’s ever heard of. The two events, and the rhetoric and circumstances that led to them, are worlds – not just centuries – apart. It says more about the timidity and emotional weaknesses of our own day and age than that of Lincoln’s time that we worry to such a great extent about rhetoric that leads to such non-violent things as passionate blog-posts and media surprise over Election Day voter turnout.
Do people take their politically charged words too far in our culture? No doubt. Parents, pastors and teachers need to encourage young people to resolve their differences in a civil manner as much as possible.
But the truth is an important thing to many of us. To hear the truth disparaged, or worse still, falsehoods masqueraded as truth (and sometimes enacted as laws of the land), is a rightly frustrating thing. To stand on principle requires that one be willing to suffer for that principle. This includes being made fun of. This includes being mocked and lampooned. This includes turning the other cheek when suffering, if only verbally, for your beliefs.
Things aren’t even as bad today as they were in the 1960’s, let alone the Civil War. Patience with our ideological enemies, and firmness and fortitude in our convictions, will change the culture more than any law, any presidential speech, or any disingenuous plea from a fake cable news show anchor/comedian.