Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day: Feel free to speak, pray (or not), and debate . . . but keep it civil

As we celebrate our belief in independence, I invite you to see the First Amendment as a responsibility not just a right. It guarantees individual rights regarding faith, speech, and expression but I think we have let something tangible get lost.

I believe we have a responsibility to express ourselves in meaningful, rational ways while embracing the fact that what we say might be refuted.

Some things in life cannot be argued. The molecular composition of oxygen and my shoe size come to mind.

If we make bold statements, it does not mean people with differing perspectives are not allowed to respond. On the contrary, our country has the opportunity to grow by debating our opposing points of view.

This freedom for open discussion, whether over matters of policy, faith, or the quality of a song, does not exist every where in the world.

Right now there are nations going through violent growing pains of trying to open up to democracy after generations of autocracy and other systems that stringently limited their citizens' capacity to express themselves. There is no need to use allegory to depict what is happening in the streets of Egypt; the protests are not symmetrical clashes of good guys and bad guys. The head of state was ousted; who knows what will happen next? The current entity in power wants to characterize this transition in a favorable way. I don't know how much control is being exerted over their local media. I watch everything I see with a deeply questioning eye. However I cringe at the growing number reports of violence against women in the midst of this turmoil. This is why I am not ready to laud anyone.

The U.S. has seen its own historic, at times violent, upheaval but we have also created the capacity to give voice to our issues and disagreements. We cannot lose sight of this lest we tumble into a way of life where physical force between opposing citizens rather than discussion rules the day.

I am far from fond of the gossipy way that freedom of speech gets used in our country (there can be an abundance of whining about nonsense when there is real work to do) but I will not tell another person how they should express themselves. Instead I speak with determination . . . and I listen.

The "spin" that governs our political dialogue (among citizens and representatives) does not phase me that much because I'm frankly trained to see past it.

What concerns me is the rise of "all or nothing" arguments within our country, where someone is only satisfied if their voice is the only one heard and any difference of opinion is viewed as invalid. We use hyperbole in excess when we complain about things we don't like. I attribute this to a desire to paint any opposition as "the bad guy."

This does not mean that malice is absent when we disagree. It does not mean that some people use freedom of expression largely to further themselves or to cause turmoil rather than to make the nation stronger. Worse, I think people dismiss ideas if they simply don't like the person who is speaking. And that dislike may stem from things unrelated to the message: age, ethnicity, wealth, attractiveness, socio-political identity, or faith.

Do any of those things matter if someone tries to warn you that a building is on fire or that a car is about to hit you?

We will always be a country of vehement opinions; I have no desire to see that squashed. What I hope is that we remember that our way of life is built on a promise to allow a myriad of voices to be heard.


Flame and Bone

When I was made from fire
Poured into the tender vessel of caution
That keeps my smoke from rising
Quickly did I discover that apart from crisp drizzles or falling snow
The world chilled my touched
Walking the narrow cornered gap between girders and cut stone
One learns to tuck his shoulders in or risk
Jostling a neighbor passing by rapt with want
For a clear path without the distraction
Of another man's boiling eyes
The tip of a finger
That oldest of all weapons
Grown deadlier and pristine in its invention
Gathers a mote of a cinder on its bare flesh
And turns pondering how best to scratch the impious itch
Prying open the tender seam
Where the oil of thought dews
Offering a new wick to ignite
Squirming alive as a salamander of mischief
That yearns for a taste of air it is so ready to devour
The steam of breath betrays me
Before the glint of orange spreads
In popping bright waves
Eroding the fibers feeding it
Leaving naught but ash
As my shell of quietude falls away