These days it seems like the whole world is clamoring. Clamoring! North Africa and the Middle East is rife with wars and rumors of wars. We have our own drug war going on along our border. Japan is reeling from unbelievable devastation at nature’s hand, worse than New Zealand and Haiti. Economic woes at home have federal and State governments at odds with citizens. Everyone wants simple solutions but none are agreed upon. Some are saying the world is coming to an end. One religious broadcaster even says Judgement Day will occur on May 20.
I believe Jesus, when he said that no one but God the Father knows when the end will come. Regardless of when “when” is, we all are supposed to be ready. So, get ready now (get right with God) while there’s still time. Scripture tells us it will be like a thief in the night. It’ll sneak up on you. So be ready. But in the meantime, everyone would benefit if we would just take a deep breath and act a bit more civilized.
Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet) lived from 1694 to 1778. The Church viewed him as a heretic and an iconoclast because he believed that God may be understood in different ways, not just according to the Biblical revelation. He was a champion of free thought, significantly impacting the “Age of Reason” or the “Enlightenment” and influencing the world view that led to both the French and American Revolutions.
When I was in high school in the early 60s, Voltaire was held up as an archetypal champion of the left. Often, those who saw conservatism as nothing more than a stale argument for the status quo assumed a superior moral posture, reciting Voltaire’s popular quote: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Back in those days one’s political position was seen as a noble cause that could be argued with honor, because the ultimate goal was to bring about the will of the people through open debate in what was considered the market place of ideas. Government couldn’t very well reflect the will of the people without allowing everyone to have their say. Respect for one’s opponents was seen as central to the issue of a free society because the political process that effectuates the will of the people depends on the respectful discussion of all points of disagreement and dissent.
The first televised Presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy, was aired in 1960. As a debate, it was exceptional. Both candidates were well-informed, instructional, and they clearly represented their ideas while showing dignity and respect for each other. No Presidential debate since then has come close, not only in terms of civility, but of the high regard given to reasoned discourse. While some would say we were more “up tight” and formal in those days, I say we were more principled, more noble.
Today, the phenomenon of civil, reasoned debate is almost nonexistent. Positions that deserve being fleshed out, in order to give the public sufficient background and foundation to make an intelligent judgement are whittled down to the barest sound bites to be chanted back and forth like the cheers of opposing sides at a football game. Debate and discussion (actually considering your opponent’s argument) are replaced with posturing and polarized demonstrations. No longer is there a meeting of the minds. No longer is there a way to process disagreement and reach the political will of the majority in a dignified way. Just gather into a mob, scream some three-word motto that always translates, “Give me what I want”, with no concern for anyone outside the mob.
Today things are quite different from my high school days. There are those in government who wish to exchange enlightenment and discussion for politically correct control. Our real loss, when we forget Voltaire’s model of holding dissent in hight esteem, is that we become exclusive. We exchange the lofty ideal of being connected to all humanity with more brutish, self-serving tribal behavior. We huddle together with our own. There is no discussion, just power plays. When democratic institutions — built on free speech and the free flow of ideas — break down, then our freedoms are in jeopardy. When everyone is shouting and no one is listening, whoever exercises the most effective power will control us, because we gave up our self-control.
I’m not saying we should all just “get along”. I’m not saying we simply need to agree to disagree. What I’m saying is that the most fundamentally important aspect of political debate isn’t defeating your enemy and getting your own way. It is in the guarantee of freedom of speech for all of us, so that whatever happens, whichever side “wins”, we will always have the freedom to discuss our disagreements openly and without reservation. You do that by respecting your opponents’ freedom of speech. Debates should be won by the genuine merits of one’s position, not by demonizing one’s opponents. Disagreement is not the end of the world.