It was nearly a week ago now that Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. Protesters hit the streets. Petitions were signed. Secession was threatened. Safe-spaces spontaneously generated by the hundreds on college campuses. Facebook and Twitter became a rage-fest. I personally witnessed family members and church friends I love come unhinged on social media.
Disappointment is one thing. We need to feel. Passion is good. It shows that we care. Orwell said, “The energy that shapes the world springs from emotion.” But this? Something very disturbing is at work here, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. I’ve felt it before in recent years. This past week has helped me figure it out.
We’re losing our minds. By that, I mean, we’re rapidly losing the capacity in modern western society to hold civil, reasoned conversations with each other. In 2016, emotion trumps evidence. Image trumps information. Feelings trump facts. (Sorry for using that word – that name that should not be named – three times in a row. Go breathe into a bag for a minute or two; I’ll wait for you.)
“And if you feel differently than I do, then FU#&^!” is usually how it plays out today. The art of rhetoric – of using oratory and writing to persuade – has vanished. I see at least five different examples of this.
An inability to make a reasoned argument.
A reasoned argument means you have assembled reasons in support of the position you hold. Name-calling (“ad hominem” attacks) is not a reason. (“Hey, that stupid blogger BL Clifton just called us ad hominems!”) Accusing anyone who voted for Trump of being a racist, sexist or homophobe is not a reason. It’s usually good to presume a person is rational unless absolutely proved otherwise. If a person voted for Clinton over Trump, or Trump over Clinton, there were reasons why they did it. It’s a good practice to begin a discussion with someone who thinks differently than you at this place. Ask, “Why did you do that?” (which presumes intelligence on their part), not “How could you do that?” (which presumes that they are an ad hominem.)
An inability to make a calm argument.
Sound bites, social media, and internet anonymity make it incredibly difficult in the modern world to lay out reasoned arguments for the positions we hold. If we only have 140 characters to make our point, it’s just easier to post a clever meme or rage at the machine. The IQ of the average commenter after a web article or Facebook post is positively Cro Magnon. It was a couple years ago that we began to see the trend, especially on college campuses, of shouting down anyone who disagreed with your position. Black Live Matter parades where protesters scream out references to police officers as ‘Pigs in a Blanket’ really works wonders to advance the cultural dialogue on race relations.
An inability to make a constitutional argument.
Here’s the one that’s frightening. We hear more and more calls in recent years for restricting free speech or reining in religious liberty. A generation has arisen that knows not George or Thomas or Ben. The current dust-up against the electoral college betrays a breath-taking ignorance of basic American civics. As does the call for open-borders and immigration without restrictions. If you can’t explain the concept of “checks and balances” or if you think that a bi-cameral legislature is a brand of cigarette, perhaps you shouldn’t be voting.
An inability to make a biblical argument.
I shake my head at this. I saw several Facebook posts of Hillary-supporters who simply posted the Ten Commandments on their site as though that settled the argument of which was the better candidate. (Which illustrates my first point – reasons please!) I assume their point is that Trump is the worst sinner and therefore, How could you put a person like that in office! – but when you suggest in reply that Hillary herself is guilty of shattering at least half of the commandments all on her lonesome, the person usually then falls back on illustrating my second point.
I’ve heard Bernie supporters make the ludicrous claim that Jesus was the first socialist, but Jesus merely said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. He did not instruct Caesar to forcibly redistribute wealth to solve society’s ills, but he did instruct his followers to practice voluntary, joyful generosity.
An inability to make a compassionate argument.
The fourth century giant of Christianity, St. Augustine, was a trained rhetorician before his conversion. “I took money for instructing my pupils how to overcome other people by speechmaking,” is how he summarized his job. In his classic biographical work Confessions, Augustine looks back in shame at how he used to behave:
“A man who is trying to win a reputation as a good speaker will, in front of a human judge and surrounded by a crowd of human beings, attack his opponent with the utmost fury and hatred, and he will take great care to see that by some slip of the tongue he does not mispronounce the word ‘human’ but he will not be concerned as to whether his rage and fury may have the effect of utterly destroying a real human being.”
So much hatred has been unleashed in our divided society in recent years. The Church exists as a community of blood-bought souls to show the world that another way is possible. Sadly, I’ve seen evidence this past week of some of that same hatred seeping into the Church. We need to be oh so careful here.
A generation ago, our culture was deeply divided like ours, by war, and economics and politics. Many Christians raised their voices up in defense of the poor, the oppressed, the war-torn. Sheldon Vanauke was a front-line witness of those days. These words of his sound like a warning bell for our day.
“I was one of those caught up in the mood and action of the 1960s, especially the Peace Movement. Christ, I thought would surely have me oppose what appeared an unjust war. But the Movement, whatever its ideals, did a good deal of hating. And Christ, gradually, was pushed to the rear. Movement goals, not God, became first…I now think that making God secondary (which in the end is to make Him nothing) is, quite simply, the mortal danger in social action, especially in view of the marked intimations of virtue – even arrogant virtue – that often perilously accompany it.” ~ Sheldon Vanauke, author of “A Severe Mercy”