A Crisis of Civility and Civics, Not Politics and Presidents
Forever Families, Inc.
As the historic events of yesterday unfolded, I not only watched in horror the video at the Capital, I listened in heartbreak to the pundits who were perpetuating the issues even as they were trying to report on the story. If we think the problem is the words and actions of Donald Trump, it’s only a matter of time before we see yesterday repeated tomorrow. I believe there are at least seven other issues that led to the events of January 6th that existed long before this president and, if we don’t address them, will only lead to even worse in the future. While this is a longer article than usual, it is clear to me this threat requires us to think more thoroughly and respond with more clarity.
The Loss of Civility
Within moments of the unfolding of events, reporters, commentators and politicians all began blaming “the other side.” Democrats blamed President Trump and his push to reject the results of the election. Republicans blamed the liberals and their constant repression of conservative voices. While both were contributing factors, they aren’t the cause.
It’s not what the issues of the day are that is the problem. It’s how we discuss the issues.
When we spend more time attacking people than addressing problems, we care less about the words and tone we use as we do so. The Cancel Culture of today is the new Mob Rule of yesterday. The goal is no longer to understand the other side of an issue, but to silence it. We now demonize the people rather than deconstruct the arguments. We just focus on what people believe, rather than taking the time to understand why they believe it.
If we are to turn our country for the better, we must change our priorities. We must quit demanding more of others and start requiring more of ourselves. Without civil discourse, we no longer have a hope for a civil society. Rather than trying to shame people for what they believe and demanding to silence their voices, we must hold ourselves accountable for how we communicate about, and to, those who disagree with our perspective.
We must set a better example for the next generation or we will produce “lorders” instead of “leaders.” We must teach them how to lead healthy debate that produces respect and compromise. Otherwise, our legacy will be a generation that seeks to lord over the other side and demands their silence. An old Hebrew proverb says, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but in airing their own opinions.” (Proverbs 18:2 NIV)
We must help the next generation learn how to understand, not undermine; how to listen to learn, not lord over.
When Ted Turner established CNN, he began the concept of an entire television network solely focused on reporting the news. All. Day. Long.
There are two significant detours that resulted from that turn of events. First, there isn’t enough news to fill a twenty-four hour cycle seven days a week. Reporting the facts of a story on television doesn’t take very long. It has to be quick and in more of an extended headline version rather than that of a newspaper article. People’s attention span can’t handle all the details. That means after you report the news, you have to fill the remainder of the time.
Enter the decline of the importance of the reporter and the rise of the commentator.
Not only does having multiple commentators help spread out the amount of time you can spend on a news story, it gives “news” networks the ability to create their own stories that become news in themselves. These commentators then become less focused on being reporters and more on becoming personalities. And the networks encourage it. Why? Because it’s not about the news. It’s about the ratings. And ratings are all about growing and knowing your audience.
To build a loyal audience, you have to create a narrative around what to be loyal to and what to run away from. In doing so, networks begin choosing sides. The more salacious the story and the more urgency in the narrative around it, the more ratings a network can grow. The problem is, then, “news” networks become advocacy channels, at which point, they cease to be news networks. They can’t be both. If the real story doesn’t fit the narrative of the side they’re advocating, it must be manipulated or removed to please the base.
Every good writer knows the most compelling stories revolve around conflict. Every successful “news” network knows the same. The truth is, there really is enough news to fill twenty-four hours if you also include feel-good stories and informational programming. But that doesn’t sell. Inspiration and information don’t motivate like fear and anger. Want to motivate your base and grow a loyal audience? Use fear and anger in your reporting and commentary.
The fact is, no matter who is president, they now have to be demonized by the other side to keep ratings up. And the reality is, what presidents and politicians do has become less of a threat to our democracy than the way they and their actions are presented to audiences. And those audiences are afraid to listen to those representing the other side out of a sense of being disloyal to their own. This president isn’t the greatest threat to our democracy and the future of our country, neither was President Obama before him. That’s what the “news” networks would have you believe, though. Why? To shift the blame away from the real threat to our democracy – advocacy groups disguised as “news” networks.
Not Enough Censorship
Most will blame the internet and social media for the loss of civility. No doubt, people feel much more freedom to air their opinions more often and with more impulsiveness from the emotion of the moment when they are online. The reaction to this phenomenon has been for tech companies and news agencies to begin censoring what is being written or said. The problem with this “back-end censorship” is that it only fuels the fire.
What we need more of is “front-end censorship.”
Before we write or say our opinion, we must require more due diligence of ourselves. Our words don’t just reflect our intellect, they reflect our character. We must expect more of ourselves in the words we choose and the way we choose to express them. We must teach our children that words are worse than sticks and stones because they impact people and civilized society. People turn to sticks and stones when they’ve run out of words. We must teach the next generation to think and express themselves more constructively.
The Divorce Culture
Older adults call those who are younger “snowflakes” and “cupcakes,” referring to their sensitivities and propensity to get their feelings hurt. The sixties generation comments with disgust about how young people revolt against those with whom they disagree and scream online to silence other’s voices and reject opposing perspectives.
The question is, where did they learn to react in that way?
We now have an entire generation raised in the divorce culture. They watched their parents demand more from each other than from themselves. They listened to their parents cuss and curse one another. They grew up during the rise of “irreconcilable differences.” They experienced their parents put more energy and emotion in the process of rejecting each other during their divorce than they experienced their parents working to compromise and respect each other during their marriage. Their parents taught them less about carrying their cross and more about how to nail someone else to theirs. As a result, they went into adulthood with very few tools in their relational toolbox for dealing with disagreement. They fear confrontation, which leads them to avoid in silent resentment, or to react harshly out of their anxiety.
We must give the next generation more options. We must teach them and show them how to work through their differences with respect and resolve for winning unity rather than victory over another.
Rights Over Responsibilities
Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. Years ago, civics class in schools was focused on raising young citizens who would understand not only the rights provided in the constitution, but also the responsibilities we have as individuals to be contributing members of our society and our democracy. We were taught the importance of not just fighting for our own rights, but fighting to protects the rights of others.
Over the past several decades, though, the focus became more about political agendas than civic responsibilities. It became more about how to use the system to get what you want than learning what your role is in protecting the constitution and the fair society it sought to create.
The right to be responsible as a free citizen, contributing to society using our unique gifts and perspectives, is one of the greatest rights given to us by our founding fathers when they rejected tyranny. When we elevate individual rights over our responsibilities as citizens, we focus more on aligning ourselves with others who prioritize the same rights we want for ourselves, regardless of the impact on society as a whole. We will fight to control and silence those who have differing values and priorities and, in doing so, we will inadvertently usher back in the tyranny we once rejected.
We must get back to producing good citizens, not just in the classroom, but in the home. We must teach and model respect. We must teach students to appreciate others, not because of what they believe or value, but because, as fellow citizens, as fellow humans all struggling to find a way in this world, they are worthy of a voice. We must espouse the priority of giving to others over gaining for ourselves.
The Rise of Arrogance
The constitution, the Bible and civil traditions all have one thing in common. They have all fallen under the attack of arrogance. Rather than being considered as sacred, they have been deemed sanctimonious. Rather than being something we see as guiding principles for the future, we have determined them to be irrelevant relics of the past.
After all, we’ve evolved. Our “advanced” society has ruled that the Bible is outdated and “needs to be updated to this century,” as though the Sovereign Creator of the universe had no idea where we would be today. The truth is, what we call evolving is actually been a slow devolve back to the same mistakes repeated over and over again by civilizations of the past, making the Bible more relevant now than ever. And when the created decide it is our right to judge the Creator, there is only one word to describe that… arrogance.
We have judged the Constitution to be something we can manipulate and reject because, after all, the founding fathers who wrote it were racist, broken, sinful people. As though we’re not. As though we’re better. We are arrogant. And that’s our problem.
The Decline of Religion
In an article written by Jon Gabriel entitled, God Help Us: We’re Losing Our Religion and Filling The Void With Politics, he makes a profound statement: “We’ve replaced prayer with protest and then wonder why everyone is so angry.” While I might not agree with everything he says in the article or the way he says it, I respect his right to say it and appreciate the general point he espouses. In summary, he points out that nature abhors a void. As our country turns away from God, our culture instinctively begins to search for something or someone to fill that void and give us meaning, purpose and hope. When we no longer have God to provide our Savior, we must provide our own. Hence, the rise of the importance of politics and politicians.
I would add that when our hope for the future must only be found in the people of today, we place ourselves in a place of extreme vulnerability and we react out of it. We demand more from people than they were created to give or have the ability to provide. And when they fail us, we are just as quick to crucify them as we were to do it the last time we decided our Savior didn’t meet our expectations. And once we silence the savior we have elected, we go after his/her disciples.
We must give the next generation something and someone more to hope in and draw purpose from than other fallen, broken people. We must teach them to understand their Creator and know their Savior. Not the version that has been misrepresented by misguided Christians or angry atheists, but the true God who loves them and created them for a purpose greater than themselves.
On to the future
Do whatever you want with Donald Trump. Just don’t think that whatever you do with regards to him is going to address the real issues that have led to this historic upheaval in our democracy. Until we deal less with our representatives and start addressing our responsibilities as the represented, our country is under a much greater threat than a politician.
Jeff McElroy is President and Cofounder of Forever Families, Inc., a non-profit organization focused on building strong kids and countries through strong families. In addition to their national marriage, parenting and family conferences, he and his wife and organization cofounder, Debby, are developing a GAP year program in east Tennessee to produce young people with the priorities, purpose and skills needed to be contributing citizens of society, capable of civil discourse, and leaders for a strong global future. To join them in this cause, contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org