I recently had the privilege to lead discussions on two vastly different works. The first was the Federalist Papers, a series of articles written in the 1780s by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay designed to convince the voters of New York to approve the proposed Constitution of the United States. The second work, “A World Split Apart,” is the transcript of a 1978 commencement address given at Harvard University by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was famous for writing about the abuses in Soviet Russia during the Stalinist era, but this address did not critique Eastern failings; it critiqued the failings of the West.
Read together, the two works give an interesting perspective on how our culture has changed over the last two centuries. The meaning and intention of some of the most noble sentiments of the Constitution have been reinterpreted in a way that they have become dangerous to our faith. These ideas are freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, and the pursuit of happiness.
My intention in this series of four posts is not to write about politics. I am not offering political solutions or critiquing political problems. I am discussing social and cultural beliefs, beliefs that have become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that we cannot see them for what they are. This subtle infiltration into our consciousness is what makes them dangerous to our faith.
Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech
In the first amendment to the Constitution, we are guaranteed the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The intention of this amendment was to prevent the government from clamping down on political dissention and criticism. It was assumed that the press, for instance, would act as a watchdog on corrupt or bad behavior on the part of the government. The press was also to be a source of information through which the electorate could make informed decisions. But the goal of maintaining an informed electorate by insuring a free press has not been accomplished. Instead the press reports only on what is fashionable.
This change has occurred largely due to the economic nature of public discourse. The press and the entertainment industry are subject to the economic pressure of financial success. Thus they do not write or show anything that their base subscribers or viewers dislike. If they alienate those subscribers, then the subscribers will stop watching, and revenues will go down. Thus public discourse is subject to fashion. It can inform the electorate only of what the electorate wants to hear. Unfashionable scandals are not scandals at all.
An example of the impact of fashion can be found in the news items selected by NPR. Most of the stories, except those dealing with breaking news, fall into an “oppressor vs. oppressed” narrative: some powerful, bad person or organization is causing harm to some powerless, good person or organization. We like to hear these stories because we feel for the underdog and the oppressed. These stories stir our moral outrage and draw us into action. But the world is not like that. Sure, there are powerful entities in the world that abuse their status and should be exposed. But are there not many more of the powerless and disenfranchised who do horrible things? We all know Walmart is supposed to be evil, but how many stories do you hear about people who shoplift from Walmart? I believe that such a story would not be well received. No one wants to hear about that. A powerful man who is racist is news. But a poor person who cheats on his taxes is not. Why do we care about the racist remark but not the tax evasion? I would suggest it is due to the fashion of the times.
The censorship provided by such a scheme is much more complete and pervasive than any governmental restriction of speech could ever create. It works on our ideas from the bottom up, not on our words from the top down.
Granted, there are voices that can and do offer critiques and alternative views. The impact of these voices on the culture at large, however, is minimal. On the one hand, if the views offered are completely out of fashion, then only a very small sector of the population can or will be willing to listen. Thus the effect will be marginal on society as a whole. On the other hand, some alternative views may be embraced by a large segment of the population, but these represent only a competing fashion. They will only offer debate and dissent on issues over which there is competition, which is of course healthy, but it masks the underlying similarity of opinion on other issues. We feel as if there is free discourse because of the difference of opinion, but we forget that much more is not being discussed because it is not a subject of ideological competition. The left and the right are at each other’s throats, but they both seduce their supporters into accepting ideas on which they agree. How often, for instance, does the press report on the bias of its own economic orientation? How often do you see stories questioning whether higher education is primarily for job preparation? Where are the in-depth stories examining whether high tech helps or hurts society? There is little to no debate on these issues between the left and the right.
The development of a fashion in the media blinds us into thinking that we are bravely taking on the most important issues of our times. But instead, our horizons are narrowed to the most fashionable issues of our times. Our ability as a culture to interact in successful ways is limited to those sorts of solutions fashion allows. More importantly, the fashion of our media envelopes us as individuals to such an extent that it is far more difficult to discern God’s view of good and evil.
An issue related to the freedom of the press is freedom of speech. Here the danger is even greater since the impact is more pervasive. As with freedom of the press, freedom of speech was designed to ensure political freedom. But the types of speech now included under the rubric of free speech has expanded well beyond freedom of political speech on issues of public concern. Freedom of speech has been reinterpreted as a ticket to spew abuse and verbally manipulate any statement without repercussion. Freedom of speech is now freedom from just about any and all restraint in speech.
As a result of our “free for all” speech, modern publications, radio, and video cater to many of our basest human desires in order to continue to titillate and excite the emotions. The strategy is to have the widest possible appeal and to keep the maximum number of readers and watchers engaged. All sorts of damaging ideas and images are thus thrust mercilessly on us, especially on our youth who are least able to resist. But if anyone tries to restrict this onslaught, “freedom of speech” is invoked to silence the naysayers.
Not only does free speech degrade our moral sensibilities, it also promotes a base form of legalism. The media, in recognizing the economic advantage of engaging our passions, constantly pushes the limits of the law in that direction. It has substituted internal restraints of goodness with external restraints of legality. Our culture now believes that it is morally acceptable to engage in character assassination, spreading of rumor, distortion of meaning, damaging innuendo, sexual exploitation, and misrepresentation—so long as it does not exceed the legal limits of such behavior. And if those people damaged by such behavior push back, the media reverts to the sacred dictum of the freedom of the press.
The danger here comes from the way the culture has demeaned kindness and decency. In the name of political freedom, we have allowed ourselves to believe that evil is OK. We have normalized unkindness in our speech. To the extent that we adopt these perspectives, we have debased ourselves and lost our way.