Wednesday, September 15

Social Discourse (Or the Lack Thereof)

Who among us has not wondered at the sad estate of political, cultural, and even theological discourse in America? It seems that we can't really discuss issues anymore. Instead, we argue. We name call. We denigrate. We engage in vitriolic wars of incrimination. Politics is marred by mudslinging. Social commentary is sullied by scandalous gossip, tabloid sensationalism, and squalid controversy. Race relations are sundered by prejudice, discrimination, and hate. Doctrinal disputes are regularly punctuated with anathemas.

The rapid and virulent disuniting of America is frightening. If it's not the 527s, it's the nightly news; if its not them it's talk radio or reality TV or hip hop's latest anthem of disdain; if it's not any of those, then it's probably us.

We are more bitterly divided today than at any time since the Civil War. We are divided over what is right and what is wrong. We are divided over what is good and what is bad. We are divided over what we should do and what we should not do. And as a result, “absolute confusion” is now our most apt epithet according to demographer George Barna.

Certainly we have always had our squabbles. We are fallen men and women. Substantial differences have “enlivened” relations between Americans since our earliest days. But more often than not, our acrid contemporary polarization has little or nothing to do with constitutional philosophies, political principles, social theories, covenantal formulations, or moral disputations--as has always been the case before. The fact is, we hardly know enough dogma to fight over it--as David Wells has asserted we have “cheerfully plunged” into “astounding cultural illiteracy.”

Instead our divisions tend to be much less substantial--usually along experiential, methodological, or pragmatic lines. We fight over styles and approaches. We part company over techniques and appearances. We sunder fellowship over emphasis, vocabulary, and personality. We are far less concerned with axiomatic first principles than we are with generic public poses. We are far less concerned with what we say or do than with how we say or do it.

And we will fight to the bitter end over such inconsequential matters. We impugn character. We assassinate reputations. And we vilify ideas--without ever taking the time to give them a fair hearing. We judge every book by its cover. As James Davison Hunter has said, “The substance and pitch of contemporary public discourse creates an impression that the typical way in which the culturally conservative and progressivist alliances communicate to each other and about each other is through language that is impulsive, if not outrageous.”

Instead of the reasoned interchange of statesmanship, hypothesis, and compromise, we are more prone to utilize what he calls the “grammar of contemporary hostility.” Instead of exchanging facts, insights, and observations, we are likely to merely exchange epithets. Our aim is to marginalize our opponents--portraying them as narrow extremists, misanthropic zealots, or divisive demagogues. We trot out the buzz words of hate and fear or play the trump cards of race or tyranny or heresy or treason. Sadly, this is the case even in the church--or perhaps, especially in the church.

We have even turned the shouting matches that result from such controversies into primetime entertainment--deliberately creating physical skirmishes and verbal barrages that pit adversaries against one another in the most incendiary and acrimonious environments imaginable.

What is this madness? Why do we continue to perpetuate it? This week I looked at three different stack of books in my study; they represent three different controversies; they contain the to-and-fro parrying of former friends and compatriots who are now opposing combatants in one or another of the latest doctrinal spats. A wave of nausea passed over me as I considered the implications of such carefully paginated vitriol. I am thinking about not reading any of them.

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