(This is the second in a series about civil discourse, respectful dialogue across difference, and nonviolence. Read Marie’s first post here. And join in the conversation by posting comments on the website below this post and future ones, as well as participating in the dialogue on our Facebook page and Twitter.)
One of the most disturbing dimensions of the current, polarized political debate is the sacrifice of truth in pursuit of power. A person can say almost anything about a candidate or political party without having to demonstrate the veracity of their assertions.
It is almost impossible to make an informed decision about which candidate’s proposals best reflect our own values because disinformation is so rampant in much of the political discourse to which we are now being subjected.
At the same time, the issues at stake are extremely critical to the global community present and future, particularly those for whom a life of dignity is perpetually elusive – and, for that matter, for the future of the whole earth community. Disengagement is not an option. Neither is knee-jerk decision-making.
My point now is not to enter the debate about which approach to any public policy squares more closely with the values of the Gospel or Catholic social teaching, but to suggest that we can’t begin to decide which proposals we prefer until we ferret out the truth to the best of our ability.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about this for a while because electronic media have opened wide the space for anyone with a computer to put almost anything in writing – truth or not. The real tension between our First Amendment right to free speech and the moral obligation to honesty errs, perhaps rightly, on the side of free speech. We might see a move to limit where some sexually explicit messages can be published or to put some control tools in parents’ hands, but that’s about it.
From what I can see, there are no boundaries on broadcast violence or outright lies. Laws against libel and slander exist, but seem to have little relevance on the campaign trail, which is pretty vicious territory. This is having a huge impact on civil discourse in this election year.
I’ve been doing a little examination of my own conscience. I have very strong opinions about the fundamental direction in which I believe our country and our society should move and I wonder sometimes if I think I have the “corner” on truth. In the coming weeks I will challenge myself to work harder at ferreting out more accurate information about a given issue (“Fact Checker-like” columns can help) and I will try to listen with more openness to others’ perspectives – particularly the perspectives of people and communities on the margins of our society and our world – before I form my opinion. But I will form an opinion – and hopefully, after study and discussion, it will still reflect a commitment to social justice, peace and respect for the integrity of creation.
Catholic social teaching (CST) should be a consistent guide to decision-making in the public arena, but disinformation and a “thin” reading of CST can lead to an ethical wasteland. The principle of subsidiarity, for example, articulates a principled balance between respect for the dignity of each person and a commitment to the common good — a recognition that we as a society have to create mechanisms that protect individual rights and structures that tend to our social (and environmental) responsibilities. Small is beautiful, but in complex societies and an intensely globalized world, government at many levels is essential.
In the coming weeks I will be re-reading some of the essential documents of CST and trying to understand the context in which they were written. The October 2011 “Note on Financial Reform” from the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace is a good example, as is Caritas in Veritate from 2009, but so is Pacem in Terris, written almost 50 years ago. My guess is their relevance will be stunning.
Marie Dennis is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the Co-President of Pax Christi International.