A Love/Hate Relationship: What Can Be Done?

We complain about the toxic level of our public discourse even as we practice and indulge it. We genuinely want that toxicity to go away, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves from promoting it. We are, it seems, both habitual perps and frustrated victims, advocates for civility in our public conversations while, at the same time, unapologetic advocates for standing up for what we believe and for passionately “calling-it-like-it-is” in language of our choosing. I have been thinking about this lately and have become uncomfortably aware that, if I don’t at least own up to my personal duplicity, my hypocrisy, I ought, in good conscience, not complain; I’m not totally without principle. I can’t have it both ways; at least, I shouldn’t.

No longer willing to turn a blind eye to my moral dishonesty by shuttling between these two positions, and chagrined by my naively waiting for someone to come and fix the problem, I’ve begun pondering this conundrum. I have some thoughts and insights I’d like to share, starting with the observation and experience that life consists of speed-bumps wherein we are continuously finding ourselves caught in binds that force us to choose between competing principles we value and having to then live with the consequences of those choices. These binds can be between principles that are petty and personal, (e.g. Do I park illegally to catch the end of my granddaughter’s soccer game, or obey the law and disappoint my granddaughter?) They can be personal and consequential. (e.g. Do I look the other way at the malfeasance of my boss to ensure my paycheck that will send my children to college, or do I risk the latter for the sake of an abstract notion, justice?) These binds are often communal (e.g. Do I shout down and silence that public speaker spewing lies and hatred, or do I support his right to free-speech and do nothing as he befouls the spirit and decency of my community?) Finally, they can be national and political. (e.g. Do we crush an emerging nation’s efforts at self-determination to insure they don’t opt for a governing system that might threaten our status as global leader, our commerce and, with that, our national security, or do our democratic values of fairness and freedom come ahead of those values?) In short, betrayals of principle are neither abnormal nor rare: they are a normative part of our daily lives.

Nonetheless, we manage to live with the consequences of these betrayals. We accept them as inevitable or out of our control. We feel bad for a moment, even feel guilt and remorse, but we promptly forget and move on. We don’t berate or flog ourselves; we learn and grow from this experience. We become wiser to the ways of the world and of mankind and about ourselves. We see and understand that life is neither simple nor easy. We forgive ourselves and accept that we’re not perfect and life isn’t either. We see that for everything there is a season. So we do the best we can and truck on.

But there’s a problem regarding our current betrayals: we may be getting older, but we are not becoming wiser. We do berate and flog, only this time, the other fellow – not ourselves. We are certainly not moving on, not in the sense of growth and wisdom, we are missing a step. We’re missing that step where we feel bad. We don’t feel bad, not even for an instant, and we neither notice nor care. It is as if, for that learning and growing step, there must first be some reaction to our infidelity, at least some acknowledgment that our choice had consequences, that there’s a principle we value that we’re dishonoring.

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