Monday, January 17, 2011

Jeopardy Hodgepodge, An Apology, Martin Luther King, and Cylons

If you're a faithful Jeopardy viewer, you know that "Hodgepodge" is the category they use when there are a bunch of not-very-related answers in the category. Keep that in mind, since today's thoughts are loose ends I want to tie up.

Rules for Discourse: Like many viewers, I was moved by the president's remarks Wednesday night in Tucson. His challenge to raise the bar on our discourse, not because it causes violence, but because it's a way forward that would be true to Christina Taylor Green's beliefs about democracy. It may seem hard to determine what kind of discourse would meet that heightened bar, but I'm not sure it's hard at all. The following comes from the Washington Post's "User Discussion and Submission Guidelines" that should govern postings on their webpage:

By submitting content, you are consenting to these rules:
  1. You agree not to submit inappropriate content. Inappropriate content includes any content that:
    • infringes upon or violates the copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property rights of any person
    • is libelous or defamatory
    • is obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit
    • violates a person's right to privacy
    • violates any local, state, national, or international law
    • contains or advocates illegal or violent acts
    • degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other classification
    • is predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass
    • contains advertising or solicitation of any kind
    • misrepresents your identity or affiliation
    • impersonates others

While the Post doesn't have the staff to monitor all comments, these are excellent guidelines we can use to monitor our own discourse. I have started copying these guidelines and posting them on comment pages when the dialogue has descended into the name calling that is too common in all of our discourse. If we all agreed to avoid these infractions, we could work together toward common understandings. I will avoid libel and defamation, I will not intimidate or harrass, and I would include "political party" in the limitation against degrading others.

The Apology: A review of websites over the last week shows a tremendous amount of victimization. Sarah Palin, Pat Buchanan, and the Washington Times believe that there is a "pogrom" against conservatives. (Now in addition to having to apologize to Jews for the "blood libel" line, they need to consider their apologies to all who have endured forced migration.) When challenged that the "socialist" and "take back our country" rhetoric has a negative effect, they respond that Candidate Obama said, "If they bring a knife to the fight, we'll bring a gun." No one has actually accused the president of inciting violence in that remark.

I really want to make a defense that we're talking about the repetition of messages over an extended period of time in a variety of media sources. And President Obama's claim was something made in a speech in June of 2008. Or that when liberals said that President Bush "lied to go to war in Iraq" that it was a fair response to the misreading of intelligence data.

But to engage in such a defense would suggest that violating principles of civil discourse is best measured by frequency or magnitude. In fact, violating the principles is a one-time thing. Once the line is crossed, doing it by a lot or doing it many times doesn't change the fact that the line was crossed. I'm reminded of a wonderful passage in Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Miller and his friends go to largely secularlized Reed College and apologize for the times in the history of the Christian faith where the Church was the source of pain and suffering. They don't make excuses. They just apologize.

So, at least for me, I'm sorry for flippant remarks that demeaned others, accused them of acting on self-interest, or of seeking political gain over common good. I crossed the line and I apologize. Norms of reciprocity would suggest that the other side do the same, but I apologize even if it only changes MY future behavior.

MLK: Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday (at least in most places). It's where we want to celebrate the significance of dreams of a better society, of the value of nonviolence over armed conflict, and how our religious values can promote the common good. But King's "I Have a Dream" speech teaches us some important lessons about civil discourse.

When I taught Race and Ethnic Relations, I would use the speech in the opening class. While most people know the line where he wants his children judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character", the speech actually demonstrates the difficulty of progress in American society. King starts the speech, describing how the great ideals of the Declaration of Independence had been given to citizens as a "promissory note" but that for blacks the note had come back marked "insufficient funds". In the middle of the speech, he argues that his "white brothers" who had marched alongside, "realize that their freedom is tied up with our freedom". He argued in other speeches that the system that so limited blacks limited whites as well. He argued for true democracy when he said, "We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote." When we can recognize the past, and own together the present, only then will we see the day when "justice rolls down like water." When that day comes, it will be common to see the children judged by their character.  We can't simply start with the character line. Understanding race relations in America requires us to hold all these thoughts together, as King did.

Here's the lessons I take for Civil Discourse. First, we have to be able to tell the truth about the past. We haven't always lived according the values we espouse. Admitting that doesn't weaken the values, it pushes us deeper. Second, we are a complex society committed to the constitutional principle of "promoting the general welfare". Not for the folks like me or the folks that agree with me -- the welfare of all. Third, we have a bias toward justice. That means addressing inequality where we see it. If a system works well for most people, we should be concerned about those for whom it doesn't work. Only then, are we free to focus on individuals as if race, class, religion, region, gender, or ethnicity doesn't matter.

Back to Jeopardy: You may have read that an IBM computer has been programmed to play Jeopardy against the two biggest winners. It will be televised in February. There was a practice game last Thursday where Watson competed in a practice game. "He" easily handled the competition.

What happens when we start using computers as pundits? Will they be able to fact check? To combine a variety of competing perspectives and find a policy proposal that meets the best solution for the most people? Can we raise our game to keep competing or will we sit idly by while Hal from 2001 quietly turns off the life support systems? 

Makes me really miss Battlestar Galactica: "The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look and feel human. Some are programmed to think they are human. There are many copies. And they have a plan".

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