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Four Dangerous Ideas, Part One: Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech

Series Introduction

The ConsitutionI 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.

 

An Almanac on Dehumanization: The Trend in Ethics

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold discusses the ethical relationship between man and nature. He likens it to the relationship of a master over property. Leopold wants that ethical relationship to change from a master over property to a relationship between equal citizens. Although the book has many insights, Leopold’s ethics are both enlightening and frightening.

Larissa Weisse's Nature ShotThe origins of the naturalist, or “green,” movement can be traced back to Leopold, whose love and respect for nature flows through the tradition of the movement. But while the naturalists took the torch of ecological awareness from Leopold, they deviated significantly from his ethics. Two terms describe the difference: citizenship and pestilence. Leopold makes man an equal to nature, while the naturalists view man as a blight on nature. The naturalists went further than Leopold originally intended, but their evolution from Leopold makes sense. They morphed Leopold’s ethics, in which man is no longer a conqueror of nature but an equal citizen, into radial extremism.

The naturalist movement diverted from Leopold’s line of succession, which passed instead to bio-ethical philosopher Peter Singer. Singer fleshed out Leopold’s ethics and followed it to its logical conclusion. Arguing for a change of ethics similar to Leopold’s, Singer proposes to end “speciesism”—that is, not to favor one living being over another purely based on its species. In a FAQ page from the Princeton University website, Singer wrote that, under the right conditions, it would be morally right to save a mouse instead of a human being if both were in a burning building and only one could be saved.

Now, some would argue that both the naturalists and Singer went further than Leopold intended. True, the naturalist’s ethics are more dehumanizing than Leopold’s. Singer’s ethics, on the other hand, are similar to Leopold’s—only more clearly articulated. So then, two views confront us: the radial naturalist’s view that man is a blight on nature and Leopold’s and Singer’s view that man is an equal citizen with nature. Which do we follow? Either way, both ethical systems are willing to sacrifice not only man’s position in nature but human lives if need be.

The two options, if followed consistently, will protect nature—but at the price of risking endangering human life. Is protecting nature so important that it justifies dehumanizing man and risking his place in the world? If the answer is yes, then society has lost sight of what’s truly important.

 

[Thanks to Gutenberg student Larissa Weisse for the nature photo.]

 

The Trivial Role Model: A Prime Example of A Broken Generation

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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Excited kids tug their parents’ hands, pleading their parents to hurry; the parents can barely contain their children as they dash into the movie theater. The young kids finally sit in the shadowy room with their large popcorn and soda, twitching with eagerness. About fifteen minutes later, the kids are ensnared; minutes later, they are shocked and some start crying. Some kids leave the theater before the movie ends. Angry mothers write letters to producers for what they did in that movie. One dismayed kid locks himself in his room for two weeks. You may be thinking, “Why am I talking about the reaction to Bambi?” But this is the way people reacted to 1986’s The Transformers: the Movie.

The reaction to Transformers: the Movie was surprising to say the least. What happened that elicited such extreme reactions from the audiences? In a shocking death scene, shocking especially for a kids’ movie, the Autobots’ (the good Transformers’) leader, Optimus Prime, died.

I sympathize with the belief that this reaction was ridiculous. However, I have read several articles that explain why this dramatic event so affected the children who witnessed it. They did not just react to a movie character dying but to the demise of a beloved substitute-father role model. Most of the writers agreed that the movie affected their generation, the latchkey kids.

The latchkey kids were a generation from broken homes. A writer of this generation claims that all generations have a defining question; her generation’s question is “When did your parents get divorced?” Since their parents were absent, particularly the fathers, kids lacked a role model to imitate and learn from. A parent-shaped vacuum developed in these children. They searched for other role-models, and since they were home alone most of the time, this source was cartoons. Kids scrutinized Saturday morning cartoons for more stable and heroic examples to follow instead of their parents. For those who watched Transformers, Optimus was a prime choice for a role model.

Three attributes of Optimus’s character provided an appealing role model: stability, virtue, and humanity. In a chaotic household resulting from poor familial relationships, Optimus Prime delivered an opportunity for kids to feel secure once a day; kids knew that Optimus always overcame any obstacle or situation. Furthermore, Optimus was a simple character who embodied virtue; he protected the weak and never tolerated evil. Finally, Optimus Prime acted like a human in the series: he criticized himself when he failed; he played games with his human friends; and he expressed anger when evil won. Optimus demonstrated to kids that anyone could be a masculine hero and still display emotions.

The reaction of children to the seemingly trivial movie scene in The Transformers: the Movie revealed the non-trivial brokenness of the latchkey-kid generation. The latchkey kids had no parents to model themselves after. Optimus Prime filled that parent-shaped vacuum.

 

Celestial Influence & You: Or The Unintended Consequences of Other People’s Choices

The following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

This post was originally posted on the author’s blog, Life: A One Way Ticket.

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Many people make decisions based on horoscopes, and the consequences of those choices are often far reaching. Celestial movements affect everyone via astrology, even if they do not believe in the validity of it in the slightest.

 

Moonrise Over Mountain

Moonrise Over Mountain

 

The forces of the blood moon began working on your life in April. This blood moon eclipse was a big deal. It kicked off a rare celestial situation called a tetrad of lunar eclipses where four lunar eclipses will occur spaced six months apart from each other. Mars was in opposition on April 8th, and we had a spectacular solar flare on April 2nd. Later in April, a partial eclipse of the sun produced a ring-of-fire phenomenon around the moon as it traveled in front of the sun. To top everything off, the Lyrid Meteor Shower added extra strength to these celestial events. Astrologers, obviously, made a big deal about these events.

The celestial movements for April were exciting! Awareness of their potential influence on you is only a fraction of the pie. Personal life, relationships, politics, finances, all of these can be influenced by the movement in the heavens. What type of energy you put into action in response to them is where the impact resides. These things that circle around earth and seemingly decide our fate—stars, moons, planets, the sun (all masses of rock, gases, or both)—how much can they influence our fates? Directly? Unless an asteroid the size of a house hits earth, which is very unlikely, then the celestial movements probably have little direct control over your existence. Indirectly? Maybe more than you can know.

Choices made, whether bad or good, follow you forever and affect everyone in their path one way or another. ― J.E.B. Spredemann

So, you don’t believe in those signs-and-zodiac star stuff? There are plenty of reasons to disbelieve the pseudoscience of astrology. One of the biggest cases for why you should ignore your horoscope is the fact that horoscopes are written to the population that shares your birthday. Check out the nifty article and chart based on a Harvard study. Astrologers use our own minds against us. They have to write a list of vague generalizations that we can then convince ourselves are true. Frankly, a well written horoscope simply encapsulates a few things that could be predictive for just about anyone. If something happens during your life that reminds you in any way of “your” horoscope, then congratulations; pat yourself on the back: you’ve just reinforced astrology by making its generalizations relevant for yourself. It is subjective-validation and often called the Barnum effect. We believe something is true because it sounds convincing enough. Many people believe in astrology and their daily horoscopes due to subjective-validation.

 

Common Astrological Symbols

Common Astrological Symbols

 

To err on the side of Susan could be considered a modern astrological maxim. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Susan Miller, the most popular modern astrologer, was so freaked out by April’s celestial activity that she taught classes on it. You can even read Susan Miller’s Guide To Surviving An Eclipse. It is a sign-based guide to dealing with the effects caused by the eclipse. In a different interview with Business Insider, Susan defends the science of astrology, her greatest prediction, and how much work she puts in each day. Either for entertainment or in seriousness, millions of people check their Susan-Miller-crafted horoscopes every day.

Before you make a decision, ask yourself this question: will you regret the results or rejoice in them? ― Rob Liano

Well, while you may believe that there are no occult forces acting upon your life, there are people who believe that the heavenly bodies do influence mundane life—people who not only believe in the influence of celestial movement but practice that belief every day. They are walking out their faith making decisions in response to their horoscopes. This is about choices and the experience of their consequences. If your boss double checks financial moves against his or her horoscope, then in a trickle-down effect you will indirectly experience astrological forces working on your life.

Every choice has consequences. Choices can have unintended consequences. Often choices unknowingly affect others. We participate in the consequences of other people’s choices. Thus whether or not you believe in astrology, you do experience its indirect effect via the consequences of the choices others make—the butterfly effect so to speak.

Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results. ― Herman Melville

Many people make decisions based on horoscopes, and the consequences of those choices are often far reaching. Celestial movements affect everyone via astrology, even if they do not believe in the validity of it in the slightest.

 

Objective Virtue

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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Andrew Kern, founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, wrote an article, You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You, discussing how to teach virtue to students. His method is not “scientific,” which may be hard to swallow for most modern audiences. Generations have been conditioned to believe that without a scientific method, or experts to stroll in, teaching anything—much less virtue—is next to impossible. In any case, many believe virtue is dead or relative to individuals. But virtue is not dead. People are just not taught to value virtue.

Some readers might disagree that we are not taught to value virtue. They value virtue; they would like all people not to cheat or steal from them. Most people desire their fellow man to be virtuous to them, but they value virtue only because it benefits them, not because of the inherent value of virtue.

People are also selective concerning which virtues they value. Plenty of virtues are not valued at all. Prime examples are chastity, purity, and forbearance. People will not need convincing that the first two virtues are not cherished; most would scoff at the mere idea of chastity or purity. Forbearance is simply the ability to resist instant gratification.

But people should not pick and choose virtues; to do so undercuts the whole point of what a virtue is. One hole in Kern’s article is that he did not define virtue. (In his defense, he was writing to a Christian audience and probably assumed they shared his definition of virtue.) I would define virtue as an objective human behavior or mindset that is favorable and pleasing in the sight of righteous men and God.

Most people would more or less agree with  my definition of virtue except for the part concerning objectivity. Kern claims that anyone can teach virtue, but I think teaching virtue is only possible if the concept of virtue is universally understood, or objective.

Why should the concept of virtue be objective and not subjective? Because ideas that are objective are indisputably part of reality. People cannot argue about the existence of something objective; they can only discuss the importance of that something. On the other hand, subjective ideas are passing fads. For example, “I like the color red” is a subjective statement that could change in time, whereas “The stop sign is red” is an objective claim of reality. Subjective concepts are created by man; objective concepts are discovered by man. Subjective concepts will fade with the passage of time, or else we would be still suffering from the fashion of 1970s. (If this is not proof of a merciful God, then I have no idea what is.) Objective concepts stand the test of time.

1970s fashions

Kern suggests teachers or parents can teach virtue simply by embodying it. If teachers spend time with their students while embodying virtue, then students will imitate the teachers. But how do people embody virtue? Kern looks to the Apostle Paul for support: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble… if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8-9). Everyone knows, or has at least experienced, what happens when you devote yourself to a subject, whether it be work, a hobby, or a project. You become its slave; you cannot help but embody whatever the subject is and exhibit it.

Sure, telling teachers to exhibit virtue is interesting, but why not tell the rest of us, too? Kern wrote his article with teachers and parents in mind. But while he is trying to convince parents and teachers that teaching virtue is possible, it is hard to believe that he would not apply the necessity to show virtue in one’s life to everyone. So then, I would change Kern’s original title from You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You to You Are What You Behold: And the World Is Beholding You because anyone can embody virtue.

But, again, how can we embody virtue? Doing so requires no method or system. Simply think about virtue until it shows in your actions. You do not have to do anything special; you just live life, go to work, and play sports while you live virtuously. That does not sound like it would make a big difference. However, this is when virtue being objective is important. Being virtuous in a world denying the objective existence of virtue will not go by unnoticed; it would be like trying to conceal a black dot on a white canvas. People will notice the very thing you are embodying, and they will imitate the virtue they see in you.

 

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