Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Assessing Public Discourse in America Today

Here is the way public issues are discussed in our time. A question in dispute arises. Two opposing groups form at the extremes. They are loud, deeply committed, activist in temperament and practice, eager participants in politics and public debate. Each claims to have the full and complete truth without qualification. Each side demonizes their opposite number. Each denies the moral legitimacy and rationality of the other, while expressing bafflement that anyone could be so blind to the obvious facts and values involved.

Exaggerated? Of course, but who can deny that that a point has been made, recognized by all who are alert to what is going on. It is not difficult to find single issue absolutists and extremists about some issue. They frequently have their opposite numbers:

Extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession for everyone contend with gun control fanatics. The National Rife Association will not tolerate even the most reasonable restrictions, seeing in the mildest of measures a fatal threat to the rights of hunters, sportsmen, target shooters, and even a dagger in the Constitution, democracy, and civilization itself. Gun control advocates tend to exaggerate the importance of the issue, and I wonder if some of them have an elitist bias against hunters and rural folk generally, suspecting they are culturally handicapped,throwbacks to a former era.

Free choice zealots vie in unrelenting fashion with anti-abortion zealots. The former ignore, evade, or downplay the fact that a fetus is a potential person, while the latter assert categorically that from the point of conception on an actual person already exists -- an affront to science, philosophy and reason generally.

Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim fundamentalists.

The American Civil Liberties Union tends to absolutize individual freedom and rights to the neglect of social good. I am a member because I think we need an extremist organization like this, although I cringe at some of the repugnant positions and parties they defend.

Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in their opponents' claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) whose compassion for the other could surely find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.

The list could go on. A little humility, respect for the integrity of the other side, and a recognition of human finitude and fallibility would do wonders to lift the level of public discourse. So would a recognition that we (all of us, no exceptions) are prone to reason from a limited, often self-centered, selfish, perspective.

Is there any hope for improvement? Not much. Why? Go back to the first paragraph.

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