Columns for The Lufkin News

The Demise of Polite Conversation

Posted Sep 10, 2017 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

When did the art of pleasant conversation and open dialogue end? Every national new item – it seems – sparks vitriol that demands an alignment in one political camp or the other, one race or the other, or one sexual orientation or the other. I am afraid we have lost the ability to exchange ideas, to communicate freely, to learn from one another. To celebrate our differences rather than condemn them. Passionate speech and polite speech are not incompatible.

But I am afraid to speak, for fear my words are misinterpreted. I am afraid to write, lest my writing not encourage the thoughtful conversation I intended, but provoke a hateful backlash. Is it no longer possible to have civil discourse?

I am afraid to laugh, for fear my laughter is misconstrued. Can’t I both laugh at Tina Fay’s Saturday Night Live sheet-caking stunt, for example, as well as at Chad Prather’s “Unapologetically Southern” YouTube videos? At political cartoons of both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times? Or is humor no longer funny, only hateful? Can’t we laugh at ourselves anymore, at our own hypocrisies? We all have them. I’m afraid we no longer recognize that; we are blinded by our self-interest.

I am afraid of social media. Facebook has unfortunately turned into a forum where, other than the annual birthday wish or mundane vacation photo, posts are filled with inflammatory opinions and commentary-as-fact with the self-righteous, ignorant replies that follow. Mob mentality sets in and people post things they would never say to your face. Hurtful – hateful – things.

Free speech is not the same thing as kind speech, uplifting speech, or frankly, intelligent speech. Nor should honest disagreement be labeled hate speech. Unfortunately, much speech today is designed to shut down the conversation by labeling one’s opponent –are they really an opponent? – a bigot, or by declaring they have no moral standing even to join the conversation. That is coercion, intimidation, and bullying no matter which side is doing it. That makes me very afraid.

I am afraid when I see fellow Christians deciding that following politics is more important than following the Ten Commandments. When they opt for strict party affiliation over and above "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Mark 12:31, KJV). And when they decide it is expedient to legislate hate, discrimination, and economic disparity while ignoring inconvenient moral issues like poverty and healthcare. What happened to being Jesus to those around us?

Rod Dreher, in his timely book The Benedict Option, notes that political victory does not vitiate the vice of hypocrisy. The socially liberal churches are just as guilty of blindly aligning with the Democratic Party as the fundamentalists are with the Republican Party. Could it be that Jesus understood this when he said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)?

I am afraid our clumsy, partisan involvement has resulted in a political environment increasingly hostile to the very real – and very Christian – charitable work of the Church. We must redirect our gaze outside our church walls and into our increasingly diverse and desperate communities. Putting our faith to work on the ground speaks volumes and accomplishes so much more than legislating selective moral conformity.

It often takes a crisis – a disaster? – to bring the country together to work for the common good. Perhaps Hurricane Harvey will accomplish that. It appears to be doing so; I just hope it lasts.

Dreher wrote, "The state will not be able to care for all human needs in the future, especially if the current projections of growing economic inequality prove accurate.” Christians need to rediscover an ethic that marries personal responsibility with intentional charity and corporate love and respect. I fear we may have drifted too far to do so.

But I am afraid not to try.

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Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

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