Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Telling the Truth

So I've finally started a blog. For years I've been worried about the breakdown in dialogue in modern society. We don't discuss issues and solutions -- we talk to those who agree with us about what's wrong with those who don't. And when we do address those we disagree with, we engage in name-calling, stereotyping, and hyperbole.

I grew up in Indiana, became a Democrat in high school, became a sociologist, remained a faithful evangelical, have spent my career in Christian higher education, and currently live in California. That makes me a contradiction in a number of ways. I love politics, even though it is mostly exasperating.

Here's what I've come to believe. I know it's simplistic, but it is also eye-opening. I've decided that we'd be a lot better if all of us, starting with me, became committed to upholding the Ninth Commandment.

You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor
 (Exodus 20: 16, Deuteronomy 5:20)

Jesus made it very clear that we were to have a broad tent when it comes to defining neighbor. In fact, extending grace to those who persecute us is right there in the Sermon on the Mount. So this clearly isn't about simply geographic neighbors.

As we enter the final ten days of this midterm election season, it seems that every commercial I see is a political ad. Far too many of them from both sides of the political spectrum contain mis-statements, exaggerations, distortions, logical errors, and occasionally lies.

Check out websites like and you learn that they gauge political statements as:
Mostly True 
Barely True 
False and 
Pants on Fire. 
Anyone who gets a rating below Mostly True (giving folks the benefit of the doubt here for misunderstanding) is knowingly Bearing False Witness. We should call it that. And once a campaign ad has been outed for being inaccurate, it should be labeled as such in subsequent showings. The groups have the first amendment rights to say what they want, but lies should be called such.

Carly Fiorino doesn't want to send California jobs overseas. Barbara Boxer hasn't destroyed health care for senior citizens. Meg Whitman won't destroy the social support system. Jerry Brown won't be soft on crime.

There are real differences in the ways these candidates would prioritize solutions to the state's problems and those should be discussed in ways the voters can hear. Not by scoring cheap shots, cherry picking individual votes, making logical leaps from an isolated comment in the past.

A related problem is that we don't talk to each other about these important social issues. We talk past each other. Or we talk to those we agree with. We no longer have the kinds of social places where we have to work through our differences. Instead, we stay in our own circles, read our preferred webpages, watch the cable channel that agrees with me, and nod our heads a lot. Even in the places where we ought to talk about these things, like the congregation, we pretend to set aside our concerns to be like-minded.

I confess that I don't spend enough time reviewing conservative websites or news channels. I confess that my social circle doesn't include enough folks who disagree with me (or if they do we don't talk about it).

One more problem with our discourse. We live on the grade school playground. Far too often, the response to a critique is "oh yeah?". Tea Party rallies with extreme statements and slanders against the president are defended with "where were you when anti-war protestors were calling the president a war criminal?" (speaking of Bush but it could have been Johnson). This misses the point of the ninth commandment. It's not about matching past mis-statements with new ones. It's about telling the truth. If I agree that those opposed to the Iraq War went too far in their rhetoric about President Bush, will the current groups stop calling President Obama a Marxist? It wasn't true then and it isn't true now.

The other form of playground argument is what I'd call the "booger face" strategy. If you read comments on political sites (like I punish myself with because I'm interested in the nature of discourse), you'll find people saying things like "you Pelosi/socialist/liberals are losing big" and "you right wing nutjobs don't have a clue". I'd say it's the kind of language third grade boys use at recess but that's unkind to third grade boys.

These are difficult times. I've got some thoughts about what makes them so challenging and I'll explore those in future posts. But we got here by not telling the truth about ourselves, our challenges, our options, and our intentions. And it seems to me that the primary way forward is to draw a line in the sand on November 3rd. Let's make that the first day of the Era where we begin to Tell The Truth.

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