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Posts Tagged ‘public dialogue’

Hi, everybody,
I have some thoughts about the future of free speech as well, and thought I’d share them with you in response to your excellent posts this past week. The future of free speech – and the freedom of assembly – both trouble me as well. I include the freedom of assembly as I remember that George W. Bush would have dissenters removed from his public speech forums – even if they weren’t causing disruptions. He didn’t want to take the chance of having any disruptions. It was terrifying to watch that.

I strongly feel that when a government wants to impose greater, or total, control over its citizens, the first thing it does is clamp down on free speech and the flow of information. That’s exactly what you would expect. The problem, of course, in this day and age – as we saw with the uprising in Iran two years ago, and with the uprisings in the rest of the Arab world this past year – is that you can do an electronic “work-around” and still get word out on Twitter. I stand up and cheer for that.

The other problem, at least for those who think they might just control the public discourse, lies in what we saw with the recent Susan G. Komen Foundation fiasco – the power of the people and their millions of individual voices will, by and large, not be stifled. So I cheer for that as well. It validates the old saying “Vox populi, vox dei” – the voice of the people is the voice of God. That’s from ancient Roman days, for those of you who recognize the Latin.

I also agree that there have to be some rules and regs regarding our public broadcasting airwaves. They are regulated, as you’ll recall, because they are a limited resource – there are not unlimited airwaves, or radio waves, out there – and because they belong to the public. Although these regulations change from time to time, I’m glad, for the most part, that they are there. I completely agree with those of you who say parents need to control what their children watch. However, you can’t always. I was a single working parent for 12 years, and one of the programs I put off-limits to my kids was “Miami Vice.” You may not recall that show, but I would sarcastically say that there was one rape an hour on it. I would come home, and that’s what the kids would be watching; they only told me years later they did it just to get my goat. But at least they knew there were some standards. However, the neighbors next door or down the street didn’t have standards like mine or values like mine, and so when the kids went to visit those friends I had absolutely no control over what they were seeing and hearing. Any of you who are parents will understand the battles that can ensue when you try to control who your children pick as friends.

And then there is school – and I completely agree that they learned more in the schoolyard than I would ever have cared to teach them in a million years at home. How they grew up to be the conservative, family-oriented adults that they are is sometimes a complete mystery to me. (My daughter tells me that’s their way of rebelling against a feminist, fairly liberal Mom, so there you go!)

I don’t think most Americans have any real understanding about what it is to be arrested for speaking one’s mind. I think you have to have been in other countries where this is the case to understand the reality and the dangers of it. When you combine that with the realities of the Internet, I think this is a kind of Pandora’s Box, and, now that it’s opened, you aren’t going to be able to stuff everything back in. Rightfully so.

However, there is an obvious and troubling coarsening of our public dialogue and our public information, and if it reflects our values, then that is troubling as well. Bob, you have a very good point about how the pendulum swings – history certainly does verify that. I have a sense that we’ll need a whole new raft of community leaders, at grass-roots levels all across the country, to pave the way toward a kind of inspirational, aspirational, more intellectual discourse that draws thoughtful people. I have a feeling we need to mature enough to understand the dangers in people wanting their 15 minutes of fame; it’s certainly not what it’s cracked up to be, but people have trouble seeing that until it happens to them.

I have a sense that we need to mature enough to finally stop screaming about “the rich do this…” and “the rich do that…” at the same time that we ourselves are wishing to be rich and above the fray. The rich aren’t actually above the fray at all; and if you think there aren’t penalties for being rich, you either haven’t checked out the tax code very well and/or you don’t know someone who’s trying to figure things out with what he or she owns. My personal take on it is in line with another old saying: The more things you own, the more they own you. That being said, as Topel sang in “Fiddler on the Roof,” – “It’s no shame to be poor; but it’s no great honor either.” I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum: I had incredibly unstable finances as a single parent, but many years later enjoyed a modicum of worry-free comfort after my parents passed away.  That level of comfort has melted away with the recession, as it has with so many – but the times were good while they lasted.

Until we get this one dialogue under control and realize that everyone gets whacked behind the knees by life at some point in time, and money is no protection against that, then we’re going to continue to give in to a coarsening of our discourse and our values. Until we stop entertaining ourselves to death, we’re not going to take quiet, reflective time to think through the issues and be able to make thoughtful, informed commentary about them.

I think that the violence and gore on TV is a direct reflection of how bored we must be. We have it so good in this country, and there are so few challenges compared to what others go through in some other countries, that we literally look to scenes of death and mayhem and sex and violence to give us a sense of adrenaline and of meaning that we obviously aren’t getting elsewhere.  Surely dipping into gore in our free time is not genuine escapism; it seems to me that it’s a search for something real which must be missing elsewhere.

But I don’t think a change in our sense of ourselves and our public dialogue can happen through law; I think it has to happen through leadership, and leadership at the grass-roots level.  People want to be raised up; they want to go to higher and better places.  We need  leaders to point the way.  We surely don’t need leaders who spend their time pointing fingers and slinging mud.  We surely don’t need more and more laws governing speech, the freedom of assembly, the right to believe as we choose.  We need leadership, inspirational  and aspirational – goals that we can follow, that we can be involved in, that will lead us higher.

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Last Saturday, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts wrote an article entitled “Get Ready for Conservative Bible” – http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/columnists/story/1287092.html.  The column appeared in this morning’s Oregonian, my daily newspaper.  Pitts makes a more universal point in talking about the fact that the Conservapedia web site is “correcting” the Bible according to conservative principles and interpretations.  That point is this: we are becoming a society where we only have to listen to, or read, information with which we agree.  Here’s how Pitts puts it in his column: 

“Rather than trust those beliefs to stand or fall in the free market of ideas, some conservatives now apply a kind of intellectual protectionism. So now you have your conservative newspaper, your conservative radio station, your conservative university, your conservative “facts” and, apparently, your conservative God, and you may build yourself a conservative life in a conservative bubble where you need never contend with ideas that challenge, contradict — or refine — your own.

“But here’s the thing: When no authority can be regarded as unimpeachable by both right and left, when no fact can be universally accepted as such, when anything you prefer not to believe is automatically dismissed as a product of “bias,” you impoverish intellect and render informed debate impossible.”

Those of us engaged in tracking new media and teaching it; those of us engaged in public communication of any type, whether making a living or just following trends, have been worried about this for a long time.  No, not worried about conservatives taking over the universe; worried about the larger point of how people are tuning out information, opinions and dialogue with which they disagree.  Complicating the issue is that it had become increasingly difficult to sort out truth from opinion from entertainment.  Witness the mainstream media last week, falling for the story of a complete 180-degree turn by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on its position regarding climate change:  http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/climate-change/whoops-reuters-acknowledges-that-hoax-story-on-climate-change-could-have-moved-financial-markets/ 

News moves at warp speed anymore, and in trying to keep up, much of which passes for news is just not credible stuff.  How do we educate our young people to have discerning minds without turning them into complete cynics?  How do we once again grow a country which is intellectually rigorous and willing to consider different information which may actually change our minds?  These are questions we’ll be having to answer for a long time in the future.

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