An American presidential election looms. Many say it’s a critical one; so much so that in fact the economic (and even social) well-being of the nation and therefore the world rests on it. Those ‘many’ who hold such a viewpoint either will (or will not) be proven right in their prophetic musings. Between today and Election Day, accusations, blame, fear-mongering, promises, encouragement, truths, half-truths and some outright lies will circulate around coffee tables and watering holes, from behind anchor desks, twitterfeeds, and out of the mouths of the talking heads and editorialists. Most of those informationally laced persuasions will be sold with a price tag labelled ‘all due respect.’ These days, the rule of conversation simply states: Raise your voice. Hurl your criticism. Remain self-entitled while offering a simple disclaimer that echoes, ‘don’t shoot the messenger,’ ‘I’m just being honest.’
Guilty as charged. Especially on the ‘raise your voice’ part. and the criticism part.(drat) Americans have long cherished the First Amendment. Some days, I wonder if they’ve forgotten that exceptions to free speech actually exist. I’m reminded of these impassioned words spoken by Andrew Shepherd, fictional US President in Rob Reiner’s delightful film, “The American President.”
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.
We do celebrate our freedom, and fret (and fight!) when we suspect its limitation. As we should. But our ability to discourse about substantive ideas seems wholly absent these days. We can only tweet 140 characters, after all. And what about sound bites? In 2000, “A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs shows the average sound bite length for the presidential candidates on the network nightly news has dropped to 7.3 seconds, a 26% decline since 1988.” They’re likely shorter twelve years later. Tweets and sound bites rile us up, certainly. But do they offer opportunities for thoughtful consideration or merely knee-jerk reactions? As Andrew Shepherd also cautions, “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.”
In an election year, or any year, really, global and domestic concerns — the social and economic and religious and international problems we face weigh on us. The heavier the burden, the more likely we are to cry out — and most often, we cry out against each other.
Instead, it might be best if we practice a bit more of this instruction from the Apostle Paul, who, without a bit of self-entitlement but total freedom in Christ, said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another,forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29 – 32).
With ‘all due respect.’ Seriously.