Thickening the Context/Deepening the Dialogue
Stephen Carter of Yale Law School has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. The immediate issue is the recent talk by Attorney General Eric Holder about race. But the wider concern is the down-sizing of our discourse to sound-byte morsels. Carter writes:
When we talk about race we do tend to talk in simplistic categories, spending more energy on labeling each other than on reasoning together.
This difficulty, however, is not limited to race. There are few issues of any importance that are not reduced, in public dialogue, to sloganeering and applause lines. Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker.
Carter’s words rang with a particular resonance as I read some of the coverage of the appointment of Archbishop Timothy Dolan to New York. He’s a “hail-fellow-well-met” type (cheers), who is by reputation “orthodox” (boo). And though the more thoughtful recognize the inadequacy of liberal/conservative labels in matters theological and religious, it too quickly (because easily) becomes the default mode of our discourse.
Democracy, at its best, rests on a foundation of mutual respect among co-equal citizens willing to take the time for serious debate. After all, even on the momentous issues that divide us, there is usually the possibility that the other side has a good argument. Yet if we paint our opponents as monsters, we owe them no obligation to pay attention to what they have to say.
If this is true of democracy, how much more is demanded of life in the body of Christ?
If you read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” — and everyone who loves democracy should read it, at least every two or three years — pay attention to the speech by the fire chief, Captain Beatty, explaining why they burned the books. The reason was not national security or political power. It was complexity. Books, says the fire chief, make ideas too difficult. The reader winds up lost, he says, “in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.” The people demanded the books be burned because they wanted no complicated ideas.
So along with Peter Nixon’s suggested reading of Guardini, perhaps Bradbury deserves some Lenten perusal as well.