President Obama's speech at yesterday's memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting inspired me. So I wanted to share some excerpts from his remarks which bear on any sort of discourse -- including "conversations" on this blog and elsewhere on the Internet.
(Since quite a few visitors here live overseas, a brief background on the events that have shaken up the United States: last Saturday a Congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head by a young man, Jared Loughner, as she was speaking with constituents in Tucson, Arizona. Giffords survived, but six other people were killed by Loughner and many others were hurt.)
You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations –- to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system. And much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.
These are nicely nuanced thoughts. I get passionate about the dangers of religiosity. Other people are avid defenders of their faith. Spiritual beliefs, or the lack thereof, are akin to the Tucson shootings in this regard: they aren't easily explained.
In fact, I'll go further and say neither can be explained.
The human mind/brain is way too complex and mysterious to be reduced in a simplistic fashion. Thoughts, motivations, emotions, desires, yearnings -- all these and so much more are beyond the ability of anyone, including the individual in whose head all these transpire, to comprehend.
So when some commentators say, "Jared Loughner certainly wasn't affected by hateful, violent political speech," they're just guessing. And when other commentators say that Loughner definitely was spurred on by talk radio or cable TV, they're also guessing.
Likewise, I do my best on this blog to stay away from making inferences about what is, or was, in someone else's mind, since even that person isn't capable of figuring out how unconscious processes in his or her brain end up producing thoughts, emotions, or actions.
All we can do, really, is speak about how we see the world and ourselves.
Yes, it's important that we learn how to talk with each other. But I see this talking as akin to laying our conversational cards on the table in a shared, open space. We shouldn't try to force our own cards into the hand (or mind) of someone else. That, as Obama said, is a way that wounds.
He went on to observe:
As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.
However, I don't take those two sentences as reflecting any sort of passivity in the face of social, cultural, environmental, political, or other sorts of problems that need to be dealt with.
We are still entitled to hold strong opinions and passionate views. We just should recognize that everybody, including our opponents, are trying to deal with life in the best way they know how. It's important to remember that humans have a lot more in common, than in difference.
Like, how we deal with grief:
So sudden loss causes us to look backward -– but it also forces us to look forward; to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.
We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we're doing right by our children, or our community, whether our priorities are in order.
We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved -- and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.
And that process -- that process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions –- that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.
Each of us is the meaning-maker of our own life.
Yes, we are affected by other people, influenced by natural events, constrained by our predispositions (genetic and otherwise), mystified by unconscious neurological processes over which we have little or no control.
But in the end, we are still responsible for how our unique human consciousness makes sense of all this, and how we treat other people and sentient creatures who are trying to figure out life in their own fashion.
This final excerpt from Obama's speech is my favorite:
If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.
As I'vee observed numerous times during the six-plus years since I started this Church of the Churchless blog, we should talk with each other on the Internet no differently than if we were sitting face to face in a coffehouse.
Yet just as "talking heads" on the radio or TV can be astoundingly vitriolic, insulting, and hateful toward people with whom they disagree, so can the distancing anonymity of the Internet foster speech which makes me go "Wow! If this person was in the same room with those he's ranting to, he or she wouldn't be talking that way."
I enjoy conversing on the Internet for the same reason I like talking with people in person: learning, sharing, entertainment, friendship-making, exposure to fresh ideas. May this blog continue to bring enjoyment to me and to others who visit it.
And may our discourse here, as elsewhere, be as civil and honest as possible.