It happened again yesterday.I almost made it. I voted early in North Carolina, so my election season was over. Since then, I'm reflecting on what I've seen (and heard). It hasn't been pretty.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve composed these thoughts over several days so that “yesterday” no longer refers to the same day, because it happens every day now.
Someone, a friend or casual acquaintance, posted something on Facebook that was a little bit inflammatory, a little bit aggressive. Or, to be more accurate, someone shared something that someone else had said. Someone else commented in an aggressive manner, raising the ante or leveling counter accusations. Sometimes these are from conservatives and the comments are from liberals tired of misinformation, obstructionism, or hypocrisy. More often they are from liberals (simply because I am connected to more liberals on FB, not b/c they do it more often), and the responses/come backs are from conservatives tired of exaggerations, distortions…other forms of hypocrisy. Sometimes my response is initial pleasure that someone has noticed a similar hypocrisy that I have, followed by irritation and frustration that there seems no quarter where people are measured, fair, impartial and using those observations to arrive at considered judgments and invite others to do the same. Sometimes I have that initial feeling right off the bat. Always, always, I’m left feeling that “I can’t wait for the election to be over.”
Really, though, in the last three years, I’ve noticed less and less of a respite between elections. There is no offseason any more, maybe there never was. The day after an election, before an inauguration, there begins the process of undercutting as a strategy to position for the next one. Is this unique to the current president and the current opposition? I don’t think so.
So, yeah, so what? What are the options…join in or remain silent.
I’ve learned a little about silence in the last five-ten years. That’s not a modest understatement; I’m trying to be precise. I’ve learn something, but it’s been actually a very small glimmer of what I need to learn. What little I have learned has been in the context of and fumbling practice of the Spiritual Disciplines. I was introduced to the concept of spiritual disciplines through Richard Foster’s seminal CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE; though it was not until reading Dallas Willard’s SPIRIT OF THE DISCIPLINES that I felt I understood at least in part their purpose and role in our lives. That was extended through Foster’s SPIRITUAL FORMATION WORKBOOK that gave me a foundational understanding of the disciplines as spiritual exercises…the first time in my adult life that I thought of devotional practice not exclusively in terms of Bible study and natural, organic Christian maturity but also in terms of homework and exercises designed to strengthen or fan into flame the graces that God has empowered the believer to practice.
“Silence” is not listed as one of the chapters in Foster’s CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE but he has much to say about it:
Quoting Bonhoeffer he reminds us: “Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and his own follies.”
Of the purpose of silence he says (98-99): “Control rather than no noise is the key to silence [….] Thomas a Kempis writes, ‘It is easier to be silent altogether than speak with moderation.’”
Very few of us have that control (to speak with moderation). I don’t. The discipline of silence is (or can be) a means to an end. By voluntarily imposing silence upon ourselves, we try to create a space where we can see how much speech, rather than truth, is used to try to gain control, have our way. Just as fasting from food makes us conscious of how much more than we realize our appetites influence our mood, attitude, and behavior, so too fasting from words can make us conscious of how much we rely on words to try to acquire, maintain, or oppose power.
In rudimentary attempts at the discipline of silence I’ve notice a few things.
1) It is almost always a harder discipline than we think. It shouldn’t be that hard to refrain from speech about something (or at all) for a proscribed period of time. After all, that isn’t even self-denial, it is just delay. But inevitably something comes up that makes us feel like, “This is an exceptional case that requires me to speak now.” Certainly there can be in this history of the world instances where our silence can have grave consequences for others and justice demands that we not withhold information. But how often in day to day life is that the case? More often it is we ourselves who benefit from our words, feeling better about ourselves (or our cause) for having spoken.
2) It makes us (or me, anyway) more sensitive to honesty. There are some people who are pathological liars, but I’m talking about something deeper than falsifying the truth. I think if we could step outside ourselves periodically, we would be shocked at how much and how often we exaggerate, shade the truth, or use words to create inferences that are greater or lesser than what a simple articulation of the truth would communicate. We justify this by saying it is necessary because “everyone does it” and “it is understood and so not really a lie” and “it’s not as though I’m lying…if they take it the wrong way [i.e. in the way I want them to take it] it’s ultimately in service of the truth.” When you are silent you feel (I’m tempted to write you are) powerless—and you long, ache for someone to speak the truth that you see and know.
Foster writes: “Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.” I have found those words to be true in my experience.
Anyways, that is a preface to say this. Here is my discipline of Silence for the second half of the year. I am going to strive/resolve to hold silence in all public forums about politics and the American presidential election. Nor will I “share” posts that others have made on FB on this topic.
There remains just a brief couple of words to be said about what, based on past experience, I do and do not expect to (or hope will) happen as a result of this discipline:
1) I do not expect others’ behavior will change much or at all. One aspect of most disciplines is that they are humbling. You may have grandiose and/or unrealistic scenarios where others notice and are inspired by your example. Spiritual disciplines are not tactical decency or indirect manipulation. In my experience with silence, others are simply happy to have the floor unopposed so that they can reiterate their own claims.
2) I do not expect that others will take up my cause (or the cause of me). One of the more humbling aspects of the discipline of silence is that it makes you realize how dispensable you are. The temptation to use words to defend or justify oneself (or one’s position) is so strong in part because it is fueled by the fear that nobody else will. Yet the reality of using words is that even if people do join your cause or affirm your words, it is never enough.
3) I do expect I will learn something. Most likely, and most frustratingly (in the past), it may very well be that I am little different from those whose practice I find the most annoying. That’s usually revealed in the more honest examinations of one’s own response to the question, “Why is it so hard (to not post this on FB, to not “share,” to not write the catty comment on someone else’s catty observation…)?”
4) I do hope I may get some better sense of guidance or leading from God about how to vote. This probably sounds like a vain hope…possibly a counter-intuitive one. Foster writes: “To listen to others quiets and disciplines the mind to listen to God. Let me repeat that. Foster writes: “To listen to others quiets and disciplines the mind to listen to God” (121). If this hope is to find fruition, I doubt it will be because my own silence allows me to hear the wisdom of some others. Nearly all of what I see in public, social discourse about politics is knowing, willful exaggeration and distortion for the purpose of self-justification and rationalizations of one's own actions (that are often out of ignorance, fear, prejudice, or self-inerest). Being silent may not, probably will not, give me more insight because I value others’ pontifications and judgments more than my own. But it may turn my attention from poking holes in those justifications (or offering up my own) and towards that which is being said by He who needs not justify Himself and would (and does) speak to me when I am prepared to listen (but will rarely, unless I’m in severe danger, shout above my own voice in order to get my attention).
May God grant us all light to see and wisdom to discern.
I don't say that intending to sound smug or superior. I'm sure I have been or will be as annoying to others as some have been to me. It was only by being intentional to abstain altogether that I've mustered any kind of ability to avoid some of the worst excesses that were pretty noticeable to me. As mentioned above, being silent, hard as it is, is easier than mastering one's speech.
Some of my observations? Very little--next to none--of what my friends have to say about politics was well meaning, engagement oriented or particularly open. I'm tempted to write that very little was sincere. That's half right. I think people meant it sincerely when they expressed their indignation or contempt for the other party and its followers. I don't think they meant it when they said a question was actual and not rhetorical (such as, "How could a Christian vote for ...... ? I really want to know.)
I'm not a single-issue voter, and I've always been a bit of a process/integrity guy. I had and have more faith in people keeping to the rules and going through a process than those who simply make claims of policy. That makes this a hard election for me, because doing things the "right" way, whether in debate, discussion, or methodology is a scant concern. Results matter.
In such a culture, truth is a huge casualty. If I judged by my Facebook for the last four months I would be hard pressed to argue that Christians knew and took seriously the admonitions to tell the truth and not bear false witness. To the extent they did/do there seemed to be a buying into the notion that gimmicks designed to obscure or evade the truth were fine so long as they had some frame (however implausible) that would allow the speaker to claim that it was technically not an outright lie, however misleading it might be. This happened over and over again, about dates of plants closing, simple algebra, whether the president used the words "act of terror," etc. It's been depressing. Both sides do it. One side (in my opinion) did it more and more blatantly, but "My lies are less egregious than theirs" is hardly an endorsement. Voters (okay, this voter) found it increasingly hard to vote based on policy issues when, particularly in one side, I felt like I had to make educated guesses based on conflicting statements about what the policy was (or might be).
It's human nature to give more credence to statements that confirm what we think we already know, so it was hardly surprising but still disheartening to watch how easily and glibly partisans dismissed questions or problems, inconsistencies or backtracks, confident that the other guy had been caught in a lie but their guy was always, only, tricked and distorted by the media.
But I'm not even mostly concerned with outright fabrications or the increasing inability of people I otherwise respect to make distinctions between spin and substantive claims...I'm concerned about a process that by its very nature requires politicians to speak in code, to find ways of insinuating what they think and will do without actually saying it so that they can't be held accountable for their words. How can truth not be a victim in such an environment.
Let me cite a few examples, and I pick them not because of which side was in the right or wrong. In the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden opined that an important reason to vote for his ticket would be because of Supreme Court nominees. Did voters want more judges like those appointed by Barack Obama or like those appointed by Republicans who wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade? Paul Ryan asked if there was a "litmus test" for judges and Biden said "no," just that the judges were fair.
Raise your hand if you believe that. Anyone? Oh, I can believe well enough that nobody on the record, in front of witnesses, asked a potential nominee what his or her position was on Roe v. Wade. But there are all sorts of ways of asking the question without making it explicit. All sorts of ways of "wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean." The statement that there was no litmus test may be true under a strict parsing of what is meant by that term, but, really, if there is no litmus test, what was the point of Biden bringing it up in the first place? Wasn't he in effect saying, "Vote for us, because we'll protect Roe v. Wade and they will appoint judges to strike it down." That's fine, you can make an appeal like that, but you can't turn around and say, "But we have no way of guaranteeing a judge will do that because we don't ask."
If you prefer another example with the roles reversed, in the third presidential debate Mitt Romney dismissed President Obama's foreign policy by saying, "We can't kill our way out of this mess." As an anti-war person, that got my attention. Not five minutes later, in response to the President saying some foreign policy matter was complex, Romney stated that his foreign policy would be "simple." He would, he said, "Well, my strategy’s pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to — to kill them, to take them out of the picture." (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/us/politics/transcript-of-the-third-presidential-debate-in-boca-raton-fla.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) It is hard, I think, to take candidates seriously if they don't take us seriously or the truth seriously. And it's hard to take supporters of either candidate seriously when they refuse to acknowledge the fundamental deficiencies of their candidates at any given point. How can one have a sustained discussion of the merits when we as voters have become the opposite of the girl in the story of the emperor with no clothes.
Having been (or tried to be) silent for four months, I've found I want a lot of things. Campaign finance reform. Abolishing the electoral college. Insist that third parties be included in a number of debates proportional to the percentage of states for which they are on the ballot. What I don't want is more people to listen to me or engage me on Facebook. I didn't say a word and you somehow managed to figure out who to vote for just fine. I don't think anything I could have said would have convinced 99.9% of you to give your own allegiances a second thought, that the minute I had said something all gears would go into motion to think about how to rebut our counter.
Am I wrong?