Post-election: Charity, truth in political discourse

Friday, 11 November 2016

By the time you read this column, the elections will have already been decided. However, at the time of the writing of this piece, Election Day has not yet commenced. I considered making predictions that would inevitably be wrong for all of you to read. But that would hurt my pride. Instead, I want to identify a problem regarding the current state of our political discourse that I witnessed during our election season, followed by a remedy.

The problem regards our quickness to assert conclusions with little semblance of argumentation. The remedy is the need to promote charity in truth in our political discourse.

Problem: Asserting Conclusions. The reality is that we live in a ‘soundbite’ world. Tweets have to be written in 140 characters or less. Status updates in a newsfeed need to be readable within the scroll of a mouse. Online videos have to establish their main point within seconds before they lose their audience to the next thing. Talk shows, radio broadcasts, and newscasts typically assemble point-counterpoint productions that last minutes, at most.

This style of discourse—if you can call it discourse—rarely allows a person to make much of an argument. Instead, the messenger usually asserts as many conclusions as possible in a short period of time, hoping the conclusions will emotionally resonate with listeners.

This method of engagement has implications on our larger political discourse.

Rather than structuring claims in the form of an argument that naturally leads to a conclusion, we simply assert a conclusion. We offer scant, if any, evidence for support. And, when our opponent disagrees with our conclusion, they do the same in return. In the end, we tend to bicker over who is right without ever analyzing and evaluating ‘why?’ either one of us is right.

A brief example: When Michael Rose-Ivey decided to take a knee during the national anthem of a Husker football game, he created a statewide controversy reflective of a nationwide controversy. Reactions abounded. Some asserted he was wrong to kneel. Others asserted he was within his rights to kneel.

Seemingly, very few argued (provided reasons) why his actions were right or wrong. What followed was a lack of understanding or any meeting of the minds between the arguing parties.

Instead of a robust public discourse on the issue of kneeling and the meaning of the national anthem, most conversations could be categorized as two folks talking past each other while asserting conclusions. Many other examples could be identified.

In the end, asserting conclusions diminishes robust public discourse. Inevitably, the poisoned fruit of this truncated form of communication is division, which is the work of the Evil One.

Remedy: Charity in Truth. In his encyclical, Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict XVI recognizes that “[c]harity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine.” It is the social doctrine of the faith—rooted in the person of Jesus Christ—which calls us to pursue the common good through politics.

To this end, charity must be at the heart of our politics. But, as Pope Benedict notes: charity can never be without truth. So, our practice of charity must be in the light of truth.

It is truth, as Pope Benedict continues, that allows us to “come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.” Truth creates “communication and communion” as it “opens and unites our minds[.]” Truth also assists us in recognizing the essential need for Christian values to build a “good society and for true integral human development.”

Public discourse—conducted in charity and truth—does not call for the mere assertion of conclusions that fail to assess the truth of things in the world. It calls for charity in order to be guided by the love of God, the One who calls us to love of neighbor. It also calls for truth, which seeks to enter into dialogue and foster an authentic search for truth.

Through charity in truth, society can begin to foster and experience a communication that enables communion and, it is in communion, that we are set free.