The chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives is given the heave-ho reportedly for expressing concerns that tax law changes should benefit all Americans, while Kanye West blows up Twitter — and not in a good way — when the rapper expresses support for President Donald Trump. In other words, it wasn’t a good week for civil discourse. Just how dysfunctional has our political dialogue gotten when a priest gets fired for expressing what can best be described as Christian views or anyone gets deeply upset about something said by the most eccentric and contrarian member of the publicity-craving Kardashian clan?
These aren’t isolated incidents, of course. There are whole cable television networks where the viewer can go and retreat to a safe space unencumbered by people challenging their most closely-held beliefs just as there are websites and social media platforms where like-minded individuals can gather to reinforce their views as well. As our national political parties become more polarized and the concepts of “moderation” or “compromise” are treated as fighting words, it should come as no shock that tolerance is down and condemnation is up. It’s happening on both sides of the political spectrum — and the current occupant of the White House seems to revel in this brand of isolation and smash-mouth deliberation.
To be fair, President Trump didn’t invent political bubbles or full-contact debate. It’s just that we don’t see him embracing civility. Ever. He’s happy to hear Kanye recognizes their shared “dragon energy,” but then he can’t help but make it about the greater glory of Donald J. Trump: “Kanye West has performed a great service to the Black Community - Big things are happening and eyes are being opened for the first time in Decades - Legacy Stuff!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
No word about whether the president plans to revisit his past moral equivocation between white supremacists and those who protest them or even instruct HUD Secretary Ben Carson to rethink his plan to triple minimum public housing rents. Oh, and does anyone in the Republican ranks even remember what Kanye said about the last GOP president after Katrina devastated New Orleans? Apparently not.
But at least President Trump is a relative newcomer to politics and therefore perhaps less accustomed to how pols can actually fraternize and talk like rational people when off the campaign trail. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to ask the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy to step down doesn’t allow for that convenient excuse. While Mr. Ryan has not indicated exactly why the House chaplain had to go, Father Conroy told The New York Times he heard complaints that his prayers may have been “too political” including the aforementioned shout-out to fairness. Granted, it’s possible for a chaplain to cross a line (the religious equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded building) but reminding everyone to treat people equally is hardly in that category.
And, of course, we could go on. Shania Twain and Roseanne Barr have gotten grief from their fans, or, in some cases apparently, former fans, for expressing varying levels of support for President Trump. A college professor says some distasteful things about the late Barbara Bush shortly after the former First Lady’s death (but on her own time and not on behalf of her school) and there’s practically a cyber lynch mob insisting she lose her job. We don’t agree with or endorse her remarks in any way, but we don’t understand why anyone especially cares, either. So that we can all get our hackles up? So that we can see those with whom we disagree politically as evil and intolerant?
In elementary school, teachers warn their pupils not to raise their fists when they disagree. “Use your words,” is the common refrain. But it needs to be updated for those who have surpassed 5th grade (in age and education, if not emotional maturity): Use your polite words and not just with your neighbors, family members and friends. Acknowledge the legitimacy of your adversary’s point of view whenever possible. Do not assume bad intent. Form your own opinions. Listen, read, study and become better informed. Sometimes, it seems as if the Internet, as great and glorious a tool as it may be, has given us conversation-by-bullhorn and we can’t even hear ourselves think. Or as Mr. West once famously wrote: “ Bam bam ‘ey ‘ey ‘ey ‘ey ‘ey, Bam bam ‘ey ‘ey ‘ey, What a bam.” Whatever that means.
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