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Politics and Existentialism: Civil Politics

Posted on 25 Oct | 0 comments
A Lincoln-Douglas debate commemorative stamp.
A Lincoln-Douglas debate commemorative stamp.

“Life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting my friends.”

― John Lennon

It was the kind of fall afternoon that makes me glad I live in Colorado. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun illuminated everything you could see. There was a slight breeze causing the golden aspen leafs to shimmer and shake as though tiny dancers. It was a great afternoon to take a short walk around the office building and enjoy the calm and splendor.

As I turned the corner to re-enter the building through the main entrance there were two tables set up across from one another. Each table held campaign information for the two major party presidential candidates. Walking past one of the tables, I overheard the volunteers sharing information about their candidate. Suddenly, the quiet beauty of the afternoon was broken with a loud derogatory remark from the opposite candidate table. What unfolded over the next few minutes was a shouting match that nearly became a physical altercation until security stepped in and ended the confrontation.

“Civil politics” has become an oxymoron in American politics. For most of us, the hundreds of commercials on television and radio, mailing flyers, Tweets, and Facebook posts have left a bitter and disgusting taste in our collective mouths. The presidential and vice-presidential debates have focused on which candidate could be more brutish, aggressive, and narcissistic. This kind of bravado and combativeness is not new to American politics. One need only read about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Daly era in Chicago, or the pistol duels of early American political campaigns to know that such behavior is a part of our American persona.

While candidates rarely come to fisticuffs anymore and no longer shoot at one another, we are a country and society deeply divided. Increasingly, intolerant factions are emerging that demand loyalty to one specific perspective whether that be the economy, religious orientation, the definition of marriage, race, when life begins or ends, guns, or where the homeless might congregate. In my personal experience, I have been unfriended on Facebook or experienced the withdrawal of acquaintances because my view on a particular issue was not theirs.

In today’s world of the internet, multiple websites, and Wikipedia, the “facts” concerning a particular issue are difficult, if not impossible, to identify. Even sources previously considered neutral or non-partisan such as the Congressional Budget Office are branded as liberal or conservative. It is hard to find a news source that is perceived as impartial and unbiased. Instead, we are greeted with marketing themes that define cable news networks as “leaning forward,” “fair and balanced,” or “keeping them honest.” In addition, news is presented in the context of opinion polls, polarized analysts, and program hosts’ biases. Truth, as it was once understood, is absent from the conversation and talk that accompanies political campaigns or legislative discussions.

Existential psychology holds as one of its tenants the concept of being apart from and be a part of. In other words, one of the keys to living a healthy, meaningful life is to learn when and how to set appropriate boundaries that enable us to interact without becoming enmeshed with another. The ability to identify where I, as a person, end, and where another begins, is significant to experiencing a balanced life and individual well-being.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr lamented the diminishing public square. That place was where public dialogue over different views and perspectives could be expressed without fear of retribution or attack. As is evidenced by the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, there is little to no tolerance in American culture for difference of opinion or non-violent protest in opposition to or in support of an idea that appears “outside” current, accepted practice. Instead of engaging in conversation to understand, force is utilized to quiet opposition.

I am blessed with a good friend whose views of governing, politics, foreign policy, and social issues are vastly different from mine. Yet, we regularly have lengthy discussions about issues in our world today. These discussions can become intense and animated, but over the years, there has never been a discussion that caused us to withdraw from one another. Yet, there are some who know both of us who become extremely uncomfortable when we engage in one of these conversations.

The existential concept of being apart from or be a part of is instructive to our current political environment. It reminds us that differences of opinion or perspective are good and acceptable. I do not have to agree with my friend in order for us to enjoy a meaningful friendship. In fact, it is instructive and growth-oriented to engage in such conversations with those of different world views. Such conversations enable the participants to gain insight concerning one another’s viewpoints. As Lisa Vallejos pointed out in her excellent blog post of October 24, Kirk Schneider has invested a significant amount of energy and energy into the creation of an “awe-based democracy” that encourages community and political leaders to engage in just these types of conversations.

In addition, dialogue with those of different world views enables me to clarify my boundaries. Without such conversation, I am unable to truly define what my beliefs and values are concerning a particular issue. These discussions assist me in learning effective ways of clarifying the others ideas, experience, and perspectives. These exchanges also help me ascertain meaningful ways for expressing my ideas, thoughts, and viewpoints. Without these talks, we become isolated, intolerant individuals, and it only serves to increase the chasms in families, communities, as well as ethnic, religious, and social groups.

Throughout history, no culture, society, or nation has survived the political fragmentation of its people. Such fragmentation has only caused destruction and war. If we do not—as a culture, a nation, a community, and an individual—learn to share and dialogue about matters of greatest significance to us we are destined to join the sad line of historical failures.

-- Steve Fehl

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