the broken state of public discourse

Anyone who is online and involved in segments of the opinionated classes–religion, politics, academia, etc.–quickly realizes the minefield that is public conversation.  The goal isn’t necessarily to contribute to the gathered understanding, but rather to establish yourself on a side, or show that you are one of the good people.

For instance, it’s pretty common for me to read something like, “If you don’t say _________  about _______, then you don’t understand or believe the Gospel.”  There’s always an interest in tying Jesus not only to a particular goal but to a particular stance.

I think I’ve been reacting to this for a long while.  And honestly, at my core I’m a fair bit rebellious. I’m resistant to being told what I must say or write.

I’m a rather opinionated person, to be honest, so it’s not that I don’t have a response to issues that are happening in this world. More, my recent silence to events or issues has more to do with really what is a postmodern critique. I’m suspicious with how public discourse is being used to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction.

There are sources of power that depend on such dysfunction in order to maintain their own authority.  Politics and Media are chief among them, as they must fuel disorder to maximize the psychological and social distress which they then can exploit. Religious leaders often have the same goal.

These systems establish authority and meaning for a class of people who then seek advantage within those systems or find themselves alienated or demonized. A fair amount of people who say things aren’t actually grounded in substantive understanding or belief.  They say what they say to establish themselves as faithful players in the system.  The winds change, they do too.

This is why much (most) public discourse is not really as much as a conversation as a antagonizing pattern of establishing the good people and the evil people. People rush to vocalize their stances so as to maintain or build their status in the particular system they aspire to find meaning in.

Religion, politics, academics, etc. it’s all the same as with pop culture: people tend to be less concerned about truth, beauty, or real consideration of the moral or aesthetic issues and more concerned with aligning themselves with those who can provide favor and advantage.

Tenure is supposed to secure freedom of thought in academia, but it misses the social pressures in seeking intellectual validation and approval by peers. Salvation by grace is supposed to secure freedom of thought in theology, but grace has long been coupled with proofs of one’s status as graced–toe the line of theological and ecclesial conformity or you will be rejected as having never received grace.

I’m working on a new book project this year, on the topic of liberation, and I’m currently reading through some books by Jean Marc-Ela, an African theologian.

When people must be on the lookout, like tracked animals, the development of a literature of paean and laud to the established regime translates into a form of prostitution  to which intellectuals are condemned for the sake of their families–in order to spare their elderly parents or their sisters and brothers the unpleasantness sure to ensue if a writer or speaker does not toe the party line.

Silence is as suspect as speaking or writing–paradox of paradoxes–since it can be interpreted as a form of disapproval of the prevailing regime.

Voluntary marginalization is a dangerous and precarious option where the multitudes are made to kneel before the idols of the day, ready to convulse in a hail of knee-jerk reactions at a moment’s notice.

It is not difficult to imagine the conscience drama in certain intellectual circles where writers and speakers are constrained on every occasion to utter the oracle pronounced to be the thinking of all citizens. Here, to speak in public means to repeat a discourse already heard.

The obligation to submit to official conformism fosters a parrot mentality, in which any critical reflection is a threat of dissidence and schism. The mind is locked up in a repetitious liturgy of the world of myth.

Without free thought there can be no progress in any area, and the triumph of unanimity that checks that free thought demands a whole ritual, currently manifested in the bowing and scraping to established regimes… The unity established through a one-party system is galvanized by the banishment of any form of dissidence labeled as threatening to public security.

Does this mean avoiding any public discourse? No.  For me, however, my sensitivity to the structures of power and how discourse is co-opted by the powerful for their own gain has led me to step back as I deal with my own temptations and, honestly, dependency.

I need approval and acceptance, not for a social sense of self, but because as of summer I need employment and income.  I see what I am told I need to say and think in order to gain status, who I must reject and who I must align with in order to get books sold, contracts, employment. I realize this and can’t get away from a verse that has afflicted me since seminary.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord. (Isaiah 31:1)

I say afflicted because as this passage stands out to me, I’ve stepped away from doing the things I should be doing in order to find the status I want or need.

I see this need, this interest in looking for those who may satisfy my very real concerns, and then seek to hold onto my integrity by not playing the game as it is being played.

Where is real freedom to be found?  It is very freeing to be on the outside, where dependency on approval for status and livelihood is not an issue.  But it is also a place of isolation and need.  The outside doesn’t pay that well, nor feed or house my family.

My security is bought at a price.  So, find a system to cling to–Right, Left, Populist, Academia–and commit to it, overlooking the faults of one’s “own” while demonizing those others.  That’s the temptation.

Real issues are used by people in power to secure their own power, they not only do not seek to alleviate the core problem such resolution is against their self-interest. They utilize the true believers and idealists to further establish their own gain.

Politics (on both sides), social causes, religious zeal; full of abusers and the abused, the latter often taking on a Stockholm Syndrome pattern of devotion to those whose self-interest drives the dysfunction. Public discourse is often more a game of social maneuvering than a pursuit of the fullness of truth.

I am silent because I don’t want to play into that system, even as I am absolutely obligated to speak up about issues that occur in my immediate context.  We are called to be good neighbors not loyal partisans.

I am often silent now because I’m trying to navigate how to speak outside the system within the systems, holding onto the fullness of hope and identity in Christ rather than clinging to a meaning derived from ultimately false patterns of meaning. I want to be a prophet not parrot the false-prophets that abound on every direction.

“We must conclude,” Ela writes, “that an acceptance of conflicts of opinion and a divergence of options, without the reduction of the opposition to silence, is not really incompatible with the pursuit of national unity and the progress of the masses.” Nor is is incompatible with the pursuit of good theology, unity of the church, or progress in social questions.

And so I wait on the Lord to give me wisdom and words. The pressure of not waiting is backed by the threat of judgment and dismissal and rejection: say “this” or you are rejected. Silence is indeed suspect.

That makes the goal of waiting on the Lord a difficult, brutally difficult, task.  Because those who are not waiting insist others join them in their chorus.

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