Jacob Z. Hess
In the 1980’s and 1990’s religious leaders in America raised alarm about the continuing cultural infiltration of the sexual revolution through pornography and sexually explicit media – based on the long-term consequences many feared if objectification and promiscuity became the norm. During this time, they warned the American people as best they could about how we were becoming “desensitized” to increasing nudity, promiscuity, etc.
When not ignored or minimized, these “prudish” leaders were widely mocked and derided for raising any concern at all – “obsessed” as they were, about the “wrong things.” Others framed these warnings as attempts to stifle freedom and control people’s lives.
But the religious leaders were right. The long-term fruit of degraded norms when it comes to sexuality have manifest themselves in full glory over the last two decades. And they’re not good.
Over the last twenty years, others have raised alarm with the continuing cultural infiltration of animosity, harshness and demonizing rhetoric in our public discourse – especially directed at those who disagree with us. These cautions have been similarly based on long-term consequences many fear if aggressive, anger-fueled language became the norm.
As in the past, these concerns about another wave of growing desensitization in our country have been widely ignored, minimized – and even derided. Others likewise frame these warnings as attempts to stifle freedom of expression and control people.
But they’re wrong. And the long-term fruit of degraded norms of conversation are continuing to manifest themselves over time. They aren’t good. And they won’t be good in the future.
Ancient warnings. In the second to last chapter of the Book of Mormon, after describing the shocking cruelty of Nephites and Lamanites towards each other in their own tragic end-game, Mormon asks his son, “O my beloved son, how can a people like this, that are without civilization whose delight is in so much abomination—How can we expect that God will stay his hand in judgment against us?”
Many people of faith in America are asking a similar question today. How can a people who are betraying God’s commands so thoroughly expect His ongoing blessing and protection?
Right in the middle of Mormon’s question, there is a poignant parenthetical that is easy to miss: “And only a few years have passed away, and they were a civil and a delightsome people.”
Does civility matter? Or is it just an attempt to “stifle” and “squelch” people in speaking their minds?
To listen to persuasive arguments being made today, civility is a threat on “speaking the truth” – with anger itself increasingly valorized as an enlightened state (“if you’re not mad, you must not be seeing what’s going on!“)
And so we pile on when someone raises another clever take-down on That Person We Think Is Terrible Too. We bristle in righteous indignation when we hear the latest news report confirming our deep conviction about the extent to which Those Other People are destroying the republic.
And when we have a chance, we share our own frustrations online – in a Facebook tirade that starts, “I know this may make some people uncomfortable, but I need to say this…”
And just like that, we fuel the very darkness threatening to overcome our country – and add our own personal contribution to the metastasizing rage sweeping the land.
More than words. To call attention to the language we use in public discourse is not a liberal or conservative thing. And to raise caution about the potential implications of rhetoric for growing aggression around us is not a partisan argument.
This kind of suggestion, however, is often dismissed by people tired of the hypersensitivities of the microaggression crowd (as am I). But independent of activist quibbles are strong prophetic cautions throughout the Book of Mormon (and beyond) about the consequences of unbridled animosities. Vivid illustrations of people being “stirred up” to violence by aggressive language shows up over and over in scripture – at least 100 times.
This goes beyond prophet warnings alone. Peacemakers who have returned from war-torn countries have started to warn the United States about the path it was on several years back. One of my own colleagues, Elizabeth Hume, and vice president for the Alliance of Peacebuilding told the New York Times, “We are seeing some serious red flags – things that make conflict experts like me really nervous.”
Paula Green, an American psychologist who has done conflict resolution in Bosnia, Rwanda and Myanmar illustrates further: “People are making up stories about ‘the other’ — Muslims, Trump voters, whoever ‘the other’ is.‘They don’t have the values that we have. They don’t behave like we do. They are not nice. They are evil.’”
She adds: “That’s dehumanization. And when it spreads, it can be very hard to correct.”
Hyper-partisan rhetoric in public discourse and the media (leading people to be alternatively certain of their views – and unsure at what’s really happening, since there is no commonly embraced standard of truth) is only one of the red flags. Others have pointed to the fraying trust in basic institutions – police, legislatures, courts, executives, religious institutions, and even the family.
This fabric of life on which we rely upon when things get hard…what happens when it goes away?
This is fairly close to what Mormon means in describing a people “without civilization.” No more order. No more stipulations. No more restraints.
That’s a dangerous place for any of us – or any country – to be.
That Senator from Utah. Which brings us to Senator Romney, who has had the gall of speaking out with concern about the corrosion of these institutions and larger tenor of our political discourse.
How grateful I am that he’s done that!
Rather than acknowledge and appreciate Senator Romney for raising his voice in defense of basic standards of decency and truth – more and more in the Dystopian Novel we are living are following President Trump’s own example in attacking Romney for doing just that.
Newsflash to fellow Latter-day Saints: Romney’s the good guy here!
And the man he is raising concern about is someone who insults, attacks and lies almost ceaselessly, betrays his wife without remorse, acts on impulse in matters with world-changing consequences, ignores counsel, punishes those who cross him, and threatens others who don’t agree with him.
“But wait – he’s put conservatives on the Supreme Court!” you might protest.
I am also grateful for that, as surely Romney is. And yet, what does that mean when half the country now distrusts the institution of the courts – seeing it as yet another way conservatives are screwing them over?
These are not normal times. And the piece of this all that you’re overlooking is the fragility of the civil ecosystem around us, which has eroded to a dangerous level today. Each time we, ourselves, give ourselves over to the same partisan attacks – make no mistake – we’re contributing to the same fraying of norms.
That doesn’t mean we cannot “speak our mind” and shouldn’t be concerned about those attempting to stifle free expression on campus and beyond (we should). And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned at the growing radicalization and aggression on the left (we should).
But if we raise our concerns in a way that disparages, demeans and insults, we’re feeding the very negativity that is hijacking our country today, and “doing our part” to add to another wave of dark desensitization in America.
We’re also acting contrary to Christ’s own teachings about how to regard our enemies – and ignoring the example of our prophet leaders who don’t revile against revilers.
Why don’t the prophets use more aggressive language to confront legitimate threats coming from the political left? Maybe it’s because there are many thoughtful, good-hearted people on the left that can be gathered to us (or join together with us) in these perilous times.
That requires differentiating ourselves sufficiently from the ugliness and aggression on the right, however (just as people must choose to do on the left) – and preserving a moral authority that comes with Christian action and the Holy Spirit’s approval in the world.
This isn’t just about “winning” anymore. It’s about helping to preserve our precious republic – and surviving as a democracy.
No, that’s not a democratic talking point, raised only by those trying to “take down Trump.”
It’s the reality of where we find ourselves in America today.
Please know: I have worked to publicly defend my brothers and sisters supporting President Trump in the past. If your support is leading you to attack efforts to speak out in defense of goodness and constitutional norms, however, then it’s time to consider how anger might be holding sway over your own mind and heart.
Aren’t these the same dynamics leading so many to attack the Church as a very bad thing?
This is not about Romney – but about the way we talk with each other, and how we regard our enemies. At the very least – even if you don’t agree with Romney – we might acknowledge the system of checks and balances on which our country is founded as a good thing. That means there is something healthy – not treasonous – about basic accountability, where one individual leader’s whims and desires don’t – and should never be allowed to – dominate.
To stand up and speak out against wickedness is a noble and honorable thing to do. Not an ignoble and cowardly thing.
Rather than attacking those willing to do that.
Let’s join them.