“It’s gotten harder to talk to people across lines of significant disagreement.”
I read this and took note of it some time ago, probably during the riots and protests that followed the murder of Floyd George about a year ago. But it was a thought that has been troubling me for years, ever since beginning to try to get a handle on post-modernism.
There are three factors that disrupt open dialogue, and they have expanded in the last half century:
· Societal polarization As RW Caves said in Encyclopedia of the City (2004): Social polarization is associated with the segregation within a society that may emerge from income inequality, real-estate fluctuations, economic displacements etc. and result in such differentiation that would consist of various social groups, from high-income to low-income. It is a state and/or a tendency denoting the growth of groups at the extremities of the social hierarchy and the parallel shrinking of groups around its middle.
· Social media echo chambers In discussions of news media, an echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal. By participating in an echo chamber, people are able to seek out information that reinforces their existing views without encountering opposing views, potentially resulting in an unintended exercise in confirmation bias. Echo chambers may increase social and political polarization and extremism.
· Coarseness of our political discourse For many reasons, some commercial and some ideological, political discourse has grown aggressive, reluctant to entertain actual debate, and uncivil.
I will now reminisce about how I have perceived this decline from my perspective as a pastor from 1965 to 2003 when I officially retired.
I thought it was my role to reconcile differences whenever possible. I was the neutral ground, the quiet eye in the middle of the storm, the bridge over troubled waters, as well as the watchman on the tower. In church terms, I was the pastoral-shepherd as well as the prophetic leader. It was a precarious tightrope act where I was to calm things down as well as sound the alarm and stir things up.
Even though our church communities were homogeneous and without significant diversity, I thought of myself as one who was in charge of holding open the possibility of diversity. Indeed, I was to advocate its desirability. I did this by identifying metaphors we already had as well as telling stories from beyond the borders of our experience and outside our comfort zone.
We gathered as friends and nestled within our familiar womb of sound and ceremony, which kept us safe from imminent incursions and occasionally drew us back from insurrections outside. As long as we were inside, we were safe and could bear to imagine realities that were alien and would be challenging, such as how nice it would be to have world peace.
It is now almost 20 years since my retirement and I am filtering second-hand information to conclude, “It’s not like that anymore.” There must be many congregations in which diversity in some of its manifestations is such a threat that its possibility is unwelcome. Since diversity comes in many forms, maybe some of them are advocated, while others are outside the pale.
Times change. When I was a boy a mixed-marriage was a Roman Catholic married a Protestant. Now the big issue is when two women or two men marry. Isn’t that the opposite of a mixed-marriage? When I was in seminary I worked in two churches. One was all white and afraid of neighborhood change that would disrupt life as they had constructed it. The other was in a changing neighborhood where the church was one of the change agents. As I hear it, the things they are afraid of are different now (basically opposite from what they had been 50 years ago) and the levels of fear are ratcheted way up.
Pastors these days cannot expect to bring about changes of attitudes, no matter what they say or how they say it. Attitudes about society are fixed by other voices. Lines of debate about that are severed. In fact, that is also true of congregations that are advocating diversity, where their banners announce YOU ARE WELCOME in rainbow colors. They have moved beyond discourse about many topics as well. They love free speech except when it advocates hatred. (That seems reasonable to me, except that the hatred is beyond discussion. At least it cannot be discussed with the ones doing the hating. And that hating is selective.)
What’s a pastor to do these days? Many pastors, I take it from what they say on social media, are chaplains now. Their audiences are winnowed down to those who are agreeable to congregate. They have decided how society should be, so that’s settled. They have decided how to deal with discordant sounds about such matters. Even if a pastor tries to challenge the congregation, the message is tolerated and the challenge is ignored. So the chaplains preside at religious events, adorned with religious accoutrements, to dispense what comfort is possible under the circumstances. It's a valuable role, but it is not really conciliatory.
If this applied only to pastors I’d refrain from repeating what has already been said. But the ruination of civil discourse is not limited to churches. All units of society, in all societies around the world that are connected by worldwide communication networks … all of them are breaking down into units that abide no disagreement.
I am worried about civilization when discourse is prevented. It’s not always “media” that are to blame. In Burma there has been a coup that basically resulted in order to prevent political discourse by arresting the democratically elected leader Aung Sun Su Kyi and thousands of others.* In Russia and China social media criticism of the leaders is being shut down. Democratic forms in Hong Kong have been crushed. Today the government in India announced the end of any critique of the way it is handling COVID.
Authoritarianism cannot stand discourse, but tyrannies always self-destruct, taking vast numbers of people along with them. When civil discourse ends, eventually civilization ends. It happens at the micro as well as the macro level of society.
This morning as I type this, I am concerned about a relative who has withdrawn from all contacts. She threatened to do this in order to preserve her peace of mind from what she saw as attacks, and now she has done it. She is a very social person. Her retreat is worrisome. Today, another relative posted: “BLM is now known as burn, loot and murder.” I think she’s crossed the line. I never imagined I could influence her, but I’m wondering if it’s worth keeping in touch with her since the gulf between us has no bridge, except that we’re cousins.
* The photo accompanying this essay is of gay men coming out of the closet and into the street to oppose the military in Burma. It is a brave thing they are doing.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.