Democracy requires that citizens actually talk with each other. When we’re no longer capable of that, things fall apart.
If there’s an emblem of the hysteria gripping American politics these days, it might just be comedienne Kathy Griffin holding what looks like President Donald Trump’s bloody, severed head. Griffin apparently thought her joke to be some kind of brave political message, but nobody laughed, least of all CNN, who fired her.
Now Griffin says she’s receiving abuse and death threats. To which some political commentators have responded, “if you can’t take it, Kathy, don’t dish it out.” But there’s an even more urgent point to this story—Our political discourse has gone off the rails. And if we don’t rein it in, our democracy cannot last.
Whether it was violent protests at U.C. Berkley and Middlebury College over conservative speakers, or the Montana Republican congressional candidate who allegedly punched a reporter, both sides of the political spectrum seem to have lost civility and decency.
No incident better illustrates this than the chaos at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Protests and counter-protests were punctuated by a campus-wide lockdown last Thursday after someone called 911 saying he was headed there with a gun to “execute as many people” as possible.
The Washington Post reports that students and others were walking around with baseball bats destroying campus property—so far over $10,000 worth.
What started all of this? Well apparently, biology professor Bret Weinstein dared to question Evergreen’s so-called “Day of Absence,” which this year involved white students being asked to leave campus during lectures on racism and privilege.
Now get this—Weinstein is a progressive, but thought that this reverse-segregation wasn’t a great idea. Students not only disagreed, but dozens of them stormed his class, “screaming about racism, white privilege, and even white supremacy.” When the college’s president, George Bridges, came to Weinstein’s defense, students screamed obscenities at him, too, and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist teachers have got to go.”
Frank Bruni—another progressive—observes in the New York Times that these students aren’t really protesting at all; they’re “staging an inquisition.”
Yale professor Nicholas Christakis knows all about student rage. Back in 2015, he and his wife were shouted down for daring to question that school’s warning to students not to wear culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. Commiserating with Weinstein on Twitter, he wrote, “[My wife] spent her whole career” working with “marginalized populations,” “but they still came for her.”
It seems there’s no room left on modern college campuses for the cherished academic value of civility. “Increasingly,” writes Erika Christakis, colleges “have become places of censure and prohibition.”
Her suggestion for students? “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
It’s good advice, but at the root of this problem is a society trying to maintain fragile concepts like human dignity and decency while long having abandoned anything to ground those concepts in the first place. Ad so it falls on Christians to be models of civility—in how we treat each other within the body of Christ (remember that the next time you’re on Facebook), and how we show respect and love to non-believers, even those trying to shout us down.
This doesn’t mean we’re to be weak or even silenced—not at all. Even if they keep shouting, as Chuck Colson said on this very program years ago, “Out of honor for the God we worship, and for the sake of our country, we should—we must—refuse to be silenced.”
Because in the end, the blessing of democracy depends in part on our willingness to debate those things that matter the most. And history shows us that if we continue losing our minds like this, someone’s eventually going to lose a head—but this time, maybe for real.
Further Reading and Information
Civility Now: Our Democracy Depends on It
People should be able to discuss topics from many perspectives while being respectful of others involved in the discussion. Christians, let’s show the world how it’s done. For more on this topic, check out the resources below.
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