I’m confused and perturbed and dismayed. Over the last few months, the temperature around the topics of religion/atheism, homosexuality/gay marriage and abortion have been heating up once again. I’m not going to take a position on any of them in this post, because what’s bothering me isn’t actually about the particular issues, it’s about the dialogue around those issues. Which isn’t a dialogue at all.
We aren’t communicating with each other on those issues. What we’re doing is yelling at each other with no desire to listen, understand, empathize or hear the other’s position. Which, in every single one of these issues, are far more nuanced and complex than either side would like to believe.
We don’t even want to admit that the other side has a position. They’re wrong and therefore they have nothing worth hearing and whatever they say is born out of intolerance, narrowmindedness, ignorance, hatred and fear. They’re not even, for some of the people commenting and monologuing on these topics, worthy of basic civil discourse, as you can see here, here, here and here.
The viciousness, the unwillingness to be open and hear is not exclusive to one side or the other. Both are spewing vitriol and hatred and closed minded trumpeting.
The problem doesn’t just lie in the extremes – those who, as in the Telegraph article are skating close to or over the edge of racism and hate speech. It’s in the attitude of some of the moderates as well, as Andrew Coyne points out in the National Post article, and as the Huffington Post article demonstrates. Neither side is interested in debate – they are interested only in presenting their sides and in silencing the other.
It’s important, because the feelings and the public rhetoric about these issues extends further than just the issue. Bullying, in the schools, is no longer about weaker children and adolescents being victimized by the stronger, louder and bigger or by the fact that the bully one day can be the bully’s victim the next. It’s not about taking lunch money, of calling someone names because they don’t fit in or because they aren’t wearing designer clothes, because of where they come from or the fact that their parents are weird. (Or that they’re weird). It’s all about homosexuality, as if the only reason to bully someone is because they’re gay, or perceived as such. School boards have floated the idea of running (or are actually holding) classes teaching kids to extend tolerance to gays. But not to blacks, French, disabled, or geek kids who happen to end up on the wrong end of the bullying stick? Apparently not. I don’t have a problem with tolerance classes. We all need to be tolerant, respectful, and kind to each other, regardless of who we are, where we come from or what we look like, or even what secondary sexual characteristics we find exciting. A lot of us don’t learn that in our homes, from the way public discourse has been going. But to focus exclusively on bullying gays isn’t the answer. The answer is to teach people to treat EVERYONE, regardless of who they are, or what views they hold, with dignity, respect and love. It’s to teach people to distinguish between to distinguish human beings and both the things they say and the things they do. I can hate the beatings my neighbour inflicts on his dog. I cannot hate my neighbour. I can remonstrate with my neighbour about the horror and cruelty of his actions. I need to listen when he tells my why he beats his dog. I need to give him answers and support to deal with whatever is causing him to beat his dog. I cannot beat my neighbour, either verbally or physically, no matter how much I think he deserves it, or how much I would like to or how little validity I think his views have.
What’s going on in the public arena now is bullying, pure and simple. If you don’t agree with me, I shut you out, I call you names, I insist on my beliefs being enacted in the public life with no regard for your rights, humanity or beliefs. I act as if I am superior to you because I have the right answer. Because you don’t agree with my views on this topic (whatever it is), you are obviously a piece of stupid, uneducated, rednecked/pinko, fern sniffing/beer guzzling commie/republican reactionary/revolutionary dog shit. (Every one of those insults are quotes taken from one side or the other on these topics, btw.)
Even if the discourse doesn’t get down to the level of name calling and threats, both sides carry a morally superior tone that rankles and shuts down any real conversation, because it says “I’m simply tolerating what you’re saying, but really – I have the right answer and you know jack shit.” (Once again, a paraphrase of an exchange on one of these topics.) We’re all familiar with it. I know I’ve (to my shame) used it and had it used on me. If anything, it’s more insidious than the out and out name calling. At least there, I can point to a clear, unmistakable insult. In this sort of debate, it can all be attributed to interpretation, which again, dismisses and denigrates the other side of the conversation.
We teach children more by example than we ever do by lecturing, essays, rewards or punishment. Children learn their attitudes and how to treat people by the way they see the adults around them treating people. And if we show them that the public arena is a place to call people names, ignore what they say, dismiss what they believe, and hate them because they disagree with us, then what are we teaching them? We’re teaching them intolerance, hatred, bigotry and repression. And they’ll act that way when they grow up, whether they believe in gay marriage or not. Whether they think abortion on demand is fine, or that every conceived life is sacred, or whether they believe in a just and loving and merciful God or that the universe is just what it is because it is and Nobody’s in charge of it.
Granted these are hot button issues, but the amount of dismissive rhetoric and out and out hatred is more than alarming – it’s scary, and it’s a lot worse than it ever has been. If we can’t, in two supposedly democratic, free countries talk about what separates us, and if we can’t teach our children how to talk about things that upset and alarm and hurt us, then what chance do we have of teaching them the tools to make a society in which we are all free and respected and heard? What is our society going to look like thirty, fifty or one hundred years from now?