The Second Great American Desensitizing

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. 

10 thoughts on “The Second Great American Desensitizing

  1. I think I agree mostly with this. However at some point, even civilly-communicated truth ends up being insulting to some people. How are we supposed to oppose increasing numbers of sociopaths and demagogues when the natural man is drawn to them instead of our weak-looking, but civil, truth-bearers?

  2. Thanks for sharing this profound and much-needed call for civility. I don’t think we (myself very much included) do ourselves or the nation any favors by returning hate for hate.

  3. I think you’re forgetting that truth and civility only work if both parties abide by them.
    You can’t have an honest conversation when one side smears the other as racist, homophobic, and bigoted. Trump is a direct result of that and precisely why Romney lost in 2012.

  4. This seems a new venture for you. Still, in this new vein, you speak your mind with the civil tone you ask of others.
    I commented on the previous post about Senator Romney. I said, he is embarrassing himself. I hope I was not unkind. I have a specific complaint about his recent actions–his use of an alter ego moniker to deride Trump, compliment himself, and agree with the President’s detractors. This is the definition of trolling.
    I believe that the truth can never be told, or resonate, or be reinforced by the witness of the spirit in anonymity. Truth must be owned to be conveyed, else it rings false.
    This is not a defense of President Trump or any of his past actions which I find appalling.
    Thank you for the discussion about civility. I wholeheartedly agree.

  5. Jacob,
    Excellent piece! Thank you.

    The common saying when one is looking for a cause of any phenomenon is to “Follow the Money”. I think it is true for this topic. Nobody will patronize or make donations to a political or media organization that does not inspire them, whether through appalling fear or exceptional benevolence. Rarely does anyone click on the bland headline, “like” a neutral tweet, fill out a check to the middle-of-the-road political candidate, or stay tuned into reasoned, dispassionate media commentary. If you cannot inspire them, then frighten them. Thus the necessity of the drive to cater to extremely demonizing opinions so as to bring in the eyeballs and the $$.

    I became a supporter of Mitt Romney after meeting one of his nephews and later his cousin and found them both to be among the finest charitable Christian men I have ever known in the Church. Both thought very highly of Mitt. I must admit that recent events have caused me concern. When Romney unwittingly provides a club with which his political enemies on the left can whack his party confreres, there is a problem. I hope he is able to make the distinction between calling out boorish and unethical behavior, and giving aid and comfort to those who laugh at him as soon as they’ve use him to achieve their ends.

    A key piece of distinguishing between harmful discourse and helpful dialogue is not so much in the what, but the how. This could also apply to moral issues (even sexual morality). Krister Stendahl, the late and former Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, and key player in assisting the Church in gaining allowance to build a temple in Stockholm, laid down some rules for assessing the religious traditions of others. They were 1) Learn about a religion from those who practice it, not from its detractors, 2) Do not compare the “best” in our religion to their “worst” in theirs, and 3) Leave room for “holy envy” – you might find some pretty cool beliefs and people in that other religion. I believe these same rules can and should apply in modern public discourse.

    Cheers.

  6. Nice post, Jacob.

    Alma taught his son, Shiblon, that we must bridle our emotions that we may be filled with love.
    Nephi warned that in the last days Satan would stir many up to anger, while others would be pacified (apathy).

    The Jaredite and Nephite extinctions occurred because of burning anger and hatred. No quarter asked, none given.

    Instead of discussing ideas and principles, we attack persons, dehumanizing them. Then, ot is easy to justify our incivil actions. Hitler did this to the Jews in order to prime normal Germans for the forthcoming atrocities.

    So what if the other side is mean? You choose to remain Christians first and foremost. The wicked, seeking to get gain and powrr, will use every dirty trick in the book. There is no excuse for incivility in discourse. There is only a growing evil.

    Pres Ballard just invited us to pray for our nation AND leaders. That means leaders in all political parties. Perhaps we should mull that over for a while.

  7. After angering Geoff, I’m going to go contrarian on this piece also. (Consistency is not one of my strong points.) Why should anyone trust Mitt Romney to be a voice of reason without ulterior motive? When running for president, he showed that he is willing to go low on his opponents. I get why people don’t trust him now. If he had the chance to be the deciding vote that removed Trump from office, it would ensure his place in history, a footnote for sure but more than almost anyone else who has ever lived.

    I thought a lot about Geoff’s response to my comment on his piece. He has no reason to think that I just want an interesting debate on the issues. He does not know me. He can’t hear my tone of voice. It is totally reasonable to assume that I am here to troll.

    In general, it is usually a good bet that an antagonistic comment on the internet in general is trolling. In politics, an adversarial view usually indicates a desire to bring someone down for personal gain. It’s how the game works. I don’t have a solution except that individually we should commit to honesty and civility regardless of the actions of those we disagree with. If they do not work as some suggested above, then our civilization has little hope.

    Right now, I hope that Romney is sincere, but I feel the need for caution.

  8. 4 things:

    1. There is a false equivalency going on.

    Incivility and name-calling on Trump’s part does not reach anywhere near the lies, conspiracies, treasons, media collusion, and push for totalitarianism on the Democrats’ part. (The left pushes for genital mutilation of confused children, and then asks the right to be civil about it?)

    If Romney condemned what’s going on by the left, I missed it. Maybe he did, but if he did, the media didn’t report it.

    2. the sexual revolution was/is indeed telling of the extent of an evil agenda.

    Your intro comparing this to the desensitization brought about by the sexual revolution is more telling than you’re letting on.

    If religious leaders of all stripes saw what was coming, what was happening, and what was going to happen, and what was/is happening, with the sexual revolution, why didn’t psychiatrists, psychologists warn about it, and the media report the warnings?

    IOW, where was “science”? IOW, it’s been 52 years since “Summer of Love” and the results were in a long time ago. How’d all that work out? And why isn’t academia, media, and the govt bureaucracy doing something or at least warning everyone?

    The stupendous 52 year silence from the psych profession and media about the dangers of the sexual revolution was and is telling. (historians too, because countries and empires falling due to decadence goes back millennia.)

    This shows that the psych profession, academia (ie, the historians) and the media were all KNOWINGLY working to destroy western civilization… for at least 52 years. “Science”, academia and media are all in on the evil soul-destroying, civilization-destroying agenda.

    Leftists have let all that _civilization-destroying_ decadence grow and fester, and dupe hundreds of millions.

    3. Civility as a tactic to reach those who can be reached. Bingo!

    What we need is an army of true saints, holy men and women, who can preach the Kingdom of God with such power, that the Holy Ghost can flow through them and carry their words into the hearts of all, convincing the hearers that there is more to life and existence than the material world.

    Forgetting/not-knowing these things:

    – There is more purpose to life than entertainment, pleasure, and reducing suffering as much as possible.
    – There is much more to life than our few mortal years.

    has led to the focus on materialism, which has _inevitably_ led to not just destroying civilizations, but is actually part of the adversary’s attempt to thwart as much as possible mankind’s eternal salvation.

    _Inevitable_ because if there is no soul, no after-life, no eternity, then there is nothing to save, as nothing would carry on after death.

    4. Targeting. Leaders and activists who knowingly spread lies need to be responded to differently than those who are merely duped by the lies.

    Additionally, those who recognize the lies and who have been passive about them, need to actively oppose the creeping agenda of destruction.

  9. President Trump is the best thing that has happened to this country in a long long time. If a regular Democrat or regular Republican would have been elected it would have been business as usual you know same old same old the establishment.

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