As an American, I believe in the core values established by our Founders and refined through our history that prioritize the freedom of the individual to choose for themselves in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. But we must also question our assumptions as Americans to ensure our system does not become a tool for abuse in the hands of the wealthy or powerful, or that individualism does not become a tidal force tearing apart our communities.
People have the right to make their own choices until those choices begin to harm others. The role of government includes negotiating boundaries between competing claims to protect the rights of citizens who would be unduly harmed by someone else’s exercise of rights. These discussions must consider hidden harms reverberating still from America’s history of racism, slavery, imperialism, sexism, and xenophobia.
As a Christian, I believe that caring for my neighbor trumps raw issues of power or money, meaning that I’m willing to lay the burden of protecting vulnerable people on the backs of those who have resources, like taxing individual wealth or corporate profit and using that money to fund health care or social programs. However, government programs cannot fix core social issues. Only deep and difficult community development work will solve those.
As a Christian, I value life across the spectrum of human existence. And I believe that laws excel in defining justice but don’t do much to change human behavior. Complex issues require complex, multifaceted solutions. For this reason, I refuse to be a one-issue voter. A single stance on a hot-button issue does not define an entire candidate.
I believe the responsibility of the majority is to protect the rights of the minority, even if that means giving ground on majority culture and rights. Those who are vulnerable or recovering from systemic oppression deserve greater protection than those who naturally enjoy the benefits of majority power. As an educated white Christian heterosexual woman, I acknowledge my privilege.
When I step into the voting booth, I do not see my vote as a simple statement of belief or a referendum on my conscience. My vote represents a series of pragmatic choices driven by issues that matter to the current cultural zeitgeist and to me as an individual. Therefore I will vote for imperfect candidates within the two-party system because that is the system we have. I do not refuse others the option of supporting a third-party candidate if they choose to do so, but I rarely find the outside candidates compelling.
Likewise, I exhort myself and others to offer charity toward others who vote under different priorities. I may disagree with someone’s press, assumptions, and priorities, but I vigorously uphold their access to a free and fair ballot. American civil discourse will improve only when we voters recognize that we share many of the same priorities (healthy citizens and functional communities, a strong infrastructure, just and fair laws, protection from harm). Where we differ is in the mechanisms for promoting those goals.
The other day, driving home from rehearsal, I chuckled to myself at a thought that I would probably say to friends in my living room but would never post to a public forum. It involved a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall sitting next to an overly enthusiastic Christmas decorator who seems to take extra joy at installing new holiday lights at this time of year.
Does my unwillingness to write a joke here about that irony make the thought bad in itself? I’m not JW and I like my holidays, so it’s funny to me. I have zero JW friends, so the risk to me personally of giving offense is slight. Yet as soon as this blog post hits the Internet, my private musings become public discourse, and they carry much more weight.
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I’ve been blogging for over ten years now. Surely at some point I’ve said things I’d now disagree with. Am I held to today’s standards for what I wrote in 2005? Should I blow up everything I’ve ever written to ensure that Future Me won’t pay the price for Past Me’s immaturity or ignorance?
And if so, what’s the point of writing anything now? What benefit does the “average person” gain from engaging in any social media or digital discourse that might outweigh any risk of being misunderstood (or rightly understood but on the wrong side of prevailing consensus)?
Though many science fiction writers predicted we’d have global communication, only Black Mirror (the British TV series) seems to grasp how horrific mass communication can be as it engages the darkest of human nature. In the 90s, early netizens skirted around pedophiles in chat rooms across the world. In the early 2000s, AIM kept us awake late at night (“bing!”) with 17 message windows stacked across the screen. (And we were still trying to avoid predators.)
But I don’t think any of us realized what we were getting into when Facebook opened up to public membership or when Twitter invited us to encapsulate thoughts in a space smaller than a standard text message. We live our lives publicly now, via Instagram histories of meals eaten and trips taken, alongside Facebook shares that mingle cat videos with political fights.
The Internet is a rough rodeo. Read any comment stream and examples of Cunningham’s Law quickly surface (the fastest way to the right answer on the Internet is to post the wrong information). It’s exhausting to be corrected non-stop for pedantic elements inside a larger post. But even Cunningham couldn’t have predicted the rancor and hate which accompany those corrections or disagreements. If you can’t handle someone insulting your grandmother and suggesting that you have incestuous relations with your mother on a regular basis, you probably shouldn’t post a comment in any public discussion.
What kind of world have we fostered, then, by moving the public square into cyberspace? A lonely, nasty, and dark one (if 2017 is any indication).
Our public and private spaces have bled into one confusing sphere. What I think to myself in the car, I might choose to say to friends who share similar backgrounds and who would not be offended. But what I write – anywhere – is publicly owned in this 21st century, subject to scrutiny and the infinite memory of Google and internet trolls. No conversation takes place within a limited audience anymore.
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As a person grows in their understanding of the world, certain forms of humor stop being funny. And other observations move from public sharing to private chuckle. Hopefully I’m more aware of why some statements are offensive rather than merely a “joke in poor taste.”Yeah, this. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t laugh at anymore. #cringe
Reputation (or notoriety) is critical for a society where the driving currency of fame is likes, clicks, views, and ad revenue generation. I recall a moment in a recent episode of The Orville (a Star Trek knock-off helmed by Seth MacFarlane that’s way better than I expected it to be). Like in Star Trek, the Orville economy doesn’t require money because people have access to free material synthesis/replication for food, clothes, or supplies. The first officer comments to a junior officer that once money ceased to be an issue for people, reputation emerged as the primary currency of value.
Except that our new desire for protection also shuts down conversation when we need it most.
We all maintain an inner discourse rife with thoughts we’ve learned not to share because the risk is too high, even if as a society we usually benefit from airing thoughts, having them challenged by competing experiences, and growing in our understanding. (I had to add “usually” to that sentence because I’m not convinced, in a year when we saw real, live Nazis and bigots marching proudly in the streets, that all discourse is useful or helpful. Some public platforms degenerate discourse. But that’s a thought for another post.)
Our swirling political discourse occupies a minefield of prejudice, racism, political correctness, philosophical disagreement, political theory, and religious tenets. We face critical conversations about what freedom of speech and belief mean when white supremacists are insisting on a seat at the table. So a little prudence about what thoughts escape my mouth into the air is probably justified.
I have grown to realize that my life as a white, WASPy female includes privileges of someone with advanced education and white skin alongside the consequences of my parents’ actions and my own. I’m the product of my upbringing and my experiences, but I’ve also learned – often through conversation with others or reading which force me to consider other perspectives- that my experience is not the yardstick by which reality is measured.
The conservative Christianity that raised me pinned the label of evil onto a lot of concepts that a pluralistic society embraces: women holding positions of authority and power; freedom of personal expression and sexual expression; self-determination; non-traditional family groupings; non-Christian religions. As I navigate what it means to be both Christian and American, those circles don’t nicely overlap.
For example, I have to face the implications of a patriarchal authority structure in the church and its negative effect on women, including rampant sexual harassment and abuse within Evangelical churches – a reckoning that’s yet to come. (Not that the Catholic church has succeeded much better. Toxic patriarchy is way worse when it’s located within enforced celibacy.)
I recognize that while my understanding of morality may guide which policies I support, not all people share that same perspective as they act out their values in the voting booth or public discourse. I’ve learned that some of my goals for others ought to be chosen by them for themselves, not enforced, in a pluralist republic like the United States.
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These are confusing, difficult thoughts. I’ve been angry for ALL of 2017, nearly llivid by this point thanks to the legislative malpractice circus that led to the passage of a tax reform bill no Senator has even read, on top of six weeks of continual allegations and revelations of sexual abuse and harassment. I have zero chill right now about this stuff.
But I know many of us are confused and secretly worried about what we’re going to wake up to once the dust settles in 2018.
I’m thrilled that chronic sexual harassers are finally getting it but also scared for my male friends who I know are good and kind people, who may have at some point set their hand on a woman’s knee or mentioned how nice her blouse looked. I don’t want to see them punished for an honest mistake that could instead become a teachable moment for better behavior int he future. And I want us to develop new vocabulary to describe the range of actions humans can take toward each other. A hand on a knee might lead some men toward engaging in sexual abuse but it is not the same as rape or abuse. We need places to discuss this, to hash out the language and the consequences.
We can’t use a sledgehammer to solve every problem in public life, yet it seems that the collapse of public and private discourse leaves us little else.
My point is this: we’re all caught in a messy web of ideas and half-baked thoughts and assumptions which form the foundation of how we see the world. And right now, social media is making it worse.
I’m not longing for us to return to some mythical good ol’ days. But it would be foolish not to recognize how much of a mess this is. There are few safe spaces to ask potentially explosive questions or to express doubt because no conversations are private anymore.
Perhaps, as with many of these problems, the solution lies in the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. That starts with building an actual relationship with “neighbors,” whether in digital or physical proximity. The hard work of community development lies at the heart of diffusing the social and political rancor we’re experiencing. I do not believe we will gain ground any other way but by building relationships.
I was stunned to see states fall to Trump one after another…. but not surprised. The working-class rage and the palpable fear of white (especially Christians) drove voters far more than any rational discussion could.
I did not want to get out of bed this morning in Trump’s America. But here we are. And I’ll have none of this #notmypresident bullshit. Trump is your President come January 20. That’s how democracy works. Take your lumps, recognize where things need to change, and work for the good of the whole country.
The difficult work of community development always happens on the local level. The working class / poor of America said last night, “That’s it, we’re done, break the system, make it work for us because right now it isn’t.” ….Except that the federal government isn’t a magic wand. Neither is the state government.
NO government is a magic spell. Good gvernments restrain wicked men and support social structures that (hopefully) promote and enable human flourishing. Government is a powerful tool of Grace. (Don’t believe that? Spend November reading the major/minor prophets.) One of the most toxic narratives ever to emerge from the alt-right and ultra-conservative edges of the Republicans and Libertarians is this idea that government is evil. That’s a dangerous idea and it needs to be confronted and disarmed. We can argue over “how much” government is a good or bad thing, but we should not dismantle the structures that restrain humans from acting out every desire or that provide incentive to act against our selfish individual interests for the good of the whole.
Regardless of who could have won the election, the poor/working class who are marginalized by the power-holders will likely not benefit from that power. The poverty of rural America emerges from global forces none of us can stop – not even Trump via blustery rhetoric of how he’s going to challenge global free trade. (Good luck with that, when Americans realize how high the prices go when we don’t participate in the global economy.) Neither Trump nor Hillary can make life in a poor, rural area much less bad than it is right now.
Who can? You can. I can. Our churches can. Civic organizations. Non-profits. And local governments (and state) working close to the issues, in conjunction with concerned citizens.
Stop being a once-every-four-years American. It takes 2 seconds to find out your state and national representatives’ phone numbers and email addresses, and save them to your address book. Contact them. Tell them what’s important to you and how you think your community’s needs can be met.
In the meantime, the past year was one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen. If you read that sentence and thought, “Yeah! Those jerks!” then you’ve missed my point. We all need a dose of civility and grace, and it can begin today with some honest soul-searching about how I am called to love my neighbor – especially the ones I disagree with – and how to season truth-speaking with grace so it can be heard (for the racism and misogyny and xenophobia I’ve seen this year breaks my heart).
Campaign finance reform: I want Congress to pass new legislation to address the Citizens United verdict, and making all political campaign contributions above $5,000 (cumulative, by donor or business) to be public ally recorded and the information available during the election cycle. If you want to invest money in politics, go ahead, but you can’t do it in secret. Or if you don’t like that solution, go pick one of the many others that have been suggested. I think we need to do something.
Shorten the election cycle via law or regulation. No campaigning may begin for a race until the previous cycle’s November contest has been settled and the vote tallies confirmed. (There’s a petition you can sign if you agree that election cycles need to be shortened.)
By law or regulation, no reporting on exit polls on Election Day until at least 50% of the polls have closed. I realize Slate disagrees with me, and you can read their argument for why they are dumping real-time information onto the electorate. But I don’t buy the argument that as a voter, I need the same information that the campaigns gather about who’s winning. Maybe it’s irrational, I dunno; but I think this kind of information overload is exactly why the last 12 months have been a living hell.
Reinstate the full measures of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, barring states from making it more difficult for minirities to get to the polls. The NYT has a Voter Suppression Trail game you can play to experience the frustration. “See if you can make it to the polls!”
Clarify voter ID restrictions. I want plenty of state flexibility but also to ensure that poor, minority, immigrant or other groups with less likelihood of a photo ID can still get the necessary credentials to vote. I want the feds to lean on states to enforce their already existing laws. It’s not unrealistic for people in certain subgroups to lack some of the documentation necessary to have a photo ID. (And if you’ve ever filed for a passport, you know how frustrating and difficult it is to get a certified copy of your original birth certificate.)
Extend voting privileges to college students for the state where they attend school, if they choose to forfeit their right to vote in their home town and state. This should be a choice any full-time college student can make if they desire. I realize absentee balloting isn’t too difficult — if you’re already somewhat good at navigating government websites — but some students identify strongly with the area where they’re attending school, and wish to vote there, even though their legal address remains at their parents’ house (perhaps to enjoy the tax benefits of being a dependent – and who can blame them?).
Encourage states to adopt voting registration laws that provide pre-registration rather than making citizens initiate and maintain the process themselves. For people who are already on the margins of the system, it’s just another set of barriers they don’t know how to navigate.
Offer federal grant money to states to improve their websites and especially mobile-friendly information about the ballot, candidates, and elections. It’s stupidly hard to get real information about the local races. I saw 3 on the ballot this morning that didn’t turn up in my research, plus one Anderson County referendum that I saw for the first time standing at the voting machine. That’s not good. By the way, I would tie the federal money to requirements that states make their voting registration and polling processes simpler and more transparent.
I realize none of this will wash the horrible taste of Trump vs Hillary out of my mouth, and tomorrow the screaming will just intensify (especially if Hillary wins), but maybe that’ll just push us Americans to implement our legendary ingenuity to fix the damn mess before 2020.