Context: Is the President Reading My Blog?

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January 21, 2013 by Michael

The quick answer to the title of this post is “no,” not only because my best readership day has drawn all of 47 viewers but also because the leader of the free world has better things to do than cruise WordPress looking for like-minded bloggers.

Still, I heard echoes in Obama’s second inaugural address of some ideas near and dear to the heart of this blog and my call for reasonable dialogue. Finding common ground is what many Presidents strive for in their speeches, of course, and we often hear what we want to hear in such speeches. Regardless, it’s heartening to hear him express some of the same ideas that inspired me to create Context and Ethics.

After laying the groundwork for the major themes of his Presidency—often in greater detail than one might expect in a speech usually reserved for soaring but abstract rhetoric—President Obama gave his call to action, the feature of many strong conclusions. As part of that call, he declared:

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

These are, of course, ideas that are near and dear to me. Too often, politicians on both side of the aisle stick to their ideals regardless of whether those ideals impede the gears of progress or fly in the face of changing public sentiment or developing scientific knowledge. While it’s admirable to maintain one’s convictions, when our representatives steadfastly refuse to compromise, nothing will get done.

Part of ethical conversation involves acknowledging the strength of your opponent’s arguments and, when necessary, conceding ground to that argument. Try arguing with someone who never admits he’s wrong, who never gives up an inch of his position. It’s frustrating and impossible, and it’s likely you’ll never have a good discussion with that person—but it’s what passes for governance today in Congress. Absolutism is not principle, unless that principle involves doing nothing as an elected representative.

As for spectacle substituting for politics, that is one of the downsides of our fully wired, up-to-the-minute, multimedia coverage of politics. Moderates are overcome by extremists, whose rants make for livelier radio and television. Reasonable dialogue is drowned out by constant bellowing—just because you’re saying it louder doesn’t make you right. And rational thought is trumped by emotional appeals, which allow you to invoke Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or whatever suitable boogeyman keeps you up at night and frightens your readers or listeners into tuning in again tomorrow. Politics should be about finding the best course for everyone, not about who can make the most noise or fling the wildest accusations.

And, of course, reasoned debate is the only way to achieve the compromise that will set us on that best course, since reason avoids alienating your opposition. Using context (verifiable facts and a knowledge of the spirit of the times in which an idea is created) and ethics (logical and un-emotional argumentation) is the pathway to reason, and thus to working together. Name calling and other emotional appeals do precisely the opposite, insulting or otherwise alienating those with whom we must work to achieve compromise.

A few minutes later, in one of the final lines of his speech, President Obama said, “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time—not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

Here, too, I agree. The solution is not merely to complain about the extremist positions of this media outlet or the reprehensible language of that commentator. The solution lies with each of us to moderate our tone, to listen more than we talk, to treat others with the respect we expect to be treated with, and to realize that the way to work together requires, well,  work.

It’s hard to dial down your language when you feel like your way of life is threatened; it’s much easier to shout and fling insults. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone with whom you vehemently disagree, to try and understand why a friend might hold such different views from yours. It’s much easier to just reject that person or try to shout her down. It’s hard to compromise and find common ground; it’s much easier to just dig in your heels and refuse to budge.

But nothing worth doing is easy, and if we’ve learned anything from our collective grand experiment in democracy, it’s that change and improvement take hard work.

If you take nothing else away from President Obama’s words today, I hope you challenge yourself to talk reasonably with those with whom you disagree, to take a breath and calm down rather than fling a quick insult, and to work towards greater unity. Because the only way we can move forward into the future is to do so together.

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