As I continue to reflect on the disturbing differences that became unambiguously plain in the United States with the recent election, I am struck by how much of our discourse about public affairs, no matter our political orientation, is about what we are against. Comparatively little of it is about what we are for. When we are on the liberal side, we tend to be against free access to guns for all comers, reliance on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs, constraints on a woman’s right to choose whether to abort a pregnancy and having the highest incarceration rate in the world. When we are on the conservative side, we tend to be against socialization of healthcare, impositions on the “right to carry”, taxes to pay for anything from which we do not immediately benefit and regulations setting limits to what goes on in the marketplaces for pharmaceuticals, financial securities and energy supplies. Depending on our views, we are against Islam, police brutality, gay marriage, the Confederate flag, sexual abuse, Vladimir Putin, immigration, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and political correctness.
It strikes me that the preeminence of against is rooted in fear, the most primal of all emotions. Whatever we hold to be of high value, we fear anything that seems to pose a threat to it. Add in the deeply human and very ancient predisposition toward tribal identification, and anything that we perceive as coming from some Other opposing tribe will, barring some highly evolved reflective self-awareness, be registered as a threat. In the face of a threat, if we don’t go into flight mode – in which case you won’t hear from us in the public arena – we go into fight mode, beginning with making sure we and our tribal allies are in sync and on message, and then making threatening noises toward the Other tribe(s) to let them know we are not to be trifled with, whatever their plans. Much of what goes on in social media concerning public affairs manifests both of these things – making sure we have clarity with our allies about our shared message, our party line, and alerting opponents to our readiness to take them on.
To be sure, embedded in many against-positions are for-positions. People who are against a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion will affirm that they are for a fetus’s right to life. People who are against fossil-fuel powered electric generation plants will affirm that they are for clean air and a habitable planet. Yet, we nevertheless live in a culture where we are much more aware of what people are against than what they are for and why. Because I don’t run in the right circles, I have not explored what “Right to Life” actually means to people who are adherents of it. Nor have I had a chance to hash out with doubters why #BlackLivesMatter to my way of thinking is a life-affirming statement, pointing a way forward from which we would all benefit, regardless of race.
Fear is truly primal, and life offers lots of opportunities to feel frightened, regardless of who we are or where, when or how we live. All the world’s great spiritual traditions put considerable effort into helping followers deal with fears, beginning with the biggest one, fear of our own mortality. It’s natural. It’s nothing new. Yet, here I want to focus in on the ubiquity of fear in public life. First, to be clear, public life is framed and sustained by mass media. There are no ideas, no shared sentiments, no visions that are not propagated, challenged, critiqued, or suppressed by mass media. To understand the role of fear in public life, we have to look at the basic business model followed by mass media. When views are expressed and exchanged, it happens almost always in the virtual space maintained by the media, only rarely face to face or shoulder to shoulder.
It is no news (no pun intended), that the media organizations that command the most attention are big businesses. Fundamentally, big businesses exist for one reason above all – to maximize the profits they generate for their owners. That is what they are for. They may stake out an ideological space, as for example Fox news unambiguously does, yet basic market economics still apply. Fox has identified and shaped a particular target market, thereby successfully generating a sweet rate of return for Rupert Murdoch and other investors. Fundamentally, the same applies to CNN, MSNBC and the rest of the big players in the media universe, whether or not we like the style and flavor of their delivery.
For media, the saleable product is “eyeballs” – unguarded and receptive audiences. Profits are generated by selling advertising access to businesses, institutions, interest groups and political campaigns, who want in turn to sell their own goods, services and messages to as many consumers as they can reach. Consumers are generally most available and receptive when their reflective, critical capacities are idling, preoccupied or at rest – chilling on the sofa, going through the daily commute, hanging out while the spaghetti cooks. How best then to grab and hold their attention? Sell fear. Sell fear of being out of fashion. Sell fear of not knowing the latest NFL rankings. Sell Islamic terrorism. Sell Climate Change. Sell Abortion Mills. Sell neo-Nazi rallies. When time-dollar value is calculated in seconds, selling serious thoughtfulness about the complexity of issues can’t compete with fear.
Suppose, though, we were to redirect our public discourse in more positive, life-affirming, joy-enhancing directions. What might we then really be for? Imagine a bunch of us randomly mixed in a room, no knowing how we voted, what we value, what we hate or what makes our hearts sing. Imagine a conversation framed with exactly two ground rules: 1) We will speak and listen respectfully in all of our exchanges; 2) Our testimonies will be exclusively about what we positively believe in and want to see in our lives and in the world. I confess, just putting this out there this way gives me pause. What do I want to see? What makes my heart sing? Inwardly stuttering here, I recognize that there are parts of me that believe it is naive to talk about the sources of my hope and joy, while remaining silent about the pervasive risks and threats among which I must negotiate the forward progress of my life. It is even more naive to put it out there, implying that it would behoove others to follow suit, and if they did what a wonderful world it would be.
For starters, though, to get the conversation going, with respect to matters of public concern here’s what I am for (in no particular order):
- I would like to live in a society where all members can joyfully manifest all the greatest gifts, inborn and acquired, they are endowed with, in their work, their interpersonal relationships and their play.
- I would like to live in a society where all citizens live healthily and, when needed, have access to the best healthcare, from before they are born until they die.
- I would like to live in a society where relationships with people at home and abroad are mutually affirming, sustaining and peaceful, and where all people are skilled at building such relationships where they are lacking or at-risk.
- I would like to live in a society where people approach others always with appreciation and respect – including the non-human others we share the planet with and depend on for our own sustenance and well-being.
- I would like to live in a society where men and boys have a strong, vital and enthusiastic sense of what it means to be male; where women and girls have a strong, vital and enthusiastic sense of what it means to be female; where people have a strong, vital and enthusiastic experience loving others intimately, no matter if they are male or female; where people of every skin color, cultural heritage and faith tradition have strong, vital and enthusiastic experiences of their respective similarities and differences.
- I would like to live in a society where we all treat the planet we live on with a sense of careful stewardship, out of an awareness that it is the most loving thing we can do for our children, grandchildren and descendants on down the line through countless generations, as well as for the other creatures we share it with.
- I would like to live in a society whereof I could say, if asked by a visitor from another galaxy what its greatest excellences are, that it is known for its peace, its love and its joy.