This past week I’ve been posting calm, soothing nature scenes on my digital art display, looking for healthy and nurturing images in a world that often seems to lack them. The picture shown below, which was captioned “Serene,” gave me a particularly peaceful feeling.
 

Pond fountain with green trees in background. 

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I generally avoid political issues on this blog because I prefer to discuss the broader cultural stories that shape our perspectives, with a view toward reflection instead of argument. However, this does not mean the two can’t overlap sometimes.

I am referring to guns, which in the United States have gotten so totally out of control that just discussing the cultural issues is nowhere near enough. People often say that the problem is the culture rather than the guns; but, of course, it is both. While I don’t dispute that our culture is full of violent images, the fact that there are real-life guns everywhere blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

Although millions of people play shooter games on their computers and watch dramas with gun violence, those games, TV programs, and movies do not in themselves cause mass murder. There are also millions who enjoy empire-building games and watch epic movies with armies of swordsmen and archers—but when have we ever seen a news story about a mass killing committed with a bow?

Archery and bow hunting are common sports, even in today’s world, and anyone who wants to buy a bow and arrows can easily do so. Guns also are commonly used as sporting equipment, for target shooting and hunting. So, it’s not just the availability of weapons that leads to mass murder, either. Nor does it depend on the speed of the weapon; in medieval times, skilled archers were very quick and effective.

I think what’s different is that bows, unlike guns, are never used to kill people in the modern world, so pictures of archers at war seem very far removed from what anyone might imagine doing in real life. Nobody has a basement arsenal full of bows and arrows. But in the United States there are many people who buy military-style weapons, thinking they may someday need those weapons for self-protection. Violent crime rates are in fact very low and continuing to fall, but everyday images of violence make it feel otherwise.

If military weapons were not sold in gun stores and kept in people’s homes, that in itself might change the culture enough so that guns would chiefly be seen as sporting equipment like bows, rather than as tools for killing other human beings. It’s true enough that the United States is awash in guns, and destroying all assault weapons would take many years. But frankly, that strikes me as a good reason to start now.

January 16, 2017 · 4 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

We the People of the United States of America seriously need to chill out.

Among other things, that means stepping back from the political nastiness and having respectful conversations with each other, instead of yelling at each other. Calling people ignorant never made them any better informed.

We live in a modern nation with a strong tradition of democracy, not in a primitive land of warring tribes. Our fellow citizens in the next county, whatever their race or religion, are not going to attack our homes in the middle of the night. Whatever we may think of the government and the economy, we’re not dying of starvation in the streets. By historical standards, that makes us very fortunate indeed.
 

Word-art of a woman with an American flag covering her head that says "We the People are greater than fear." 

Fear corrodes. When we make decisions based on fear—when we go through our days full of anxiety, feeling as if disasters are everywhere and we’re about to be attacked at any moment—not only do we make poor decisions and get stressed out and unhealthy; our society’s collective health also suffers.

Yes, we have real concerns, and there is much in today’s world that needs attention. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to look at every political dispute like it’s a fight to the death. If we want to imagine ourselves charging heroically onto a battlefield, that’s what war movies and video games are for. Social and political issues, like everything else, are best addressed through kindness, decency, respect, patience, hard work, and staying true to our values.

December 3, 2016 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Here’s a thought-experiment to consider: Imagine a third party in the American political system bringing about civility and respectful dialogue, without electing even a single candidate to office.

Let’s call it the Civility Party. It would never do any negative campaigning. Indeed, it wouldn’t even have a platform, nor would it campaign at all. It would have only one role—as a spoiler. When a major-party candidate got too nasty, the moderate and independent voters who otherwise would have supported him or her could, instead, cast a protest vote for the Civility Party’s candidate.

So what, you’re probably thinking. There are plenty of third parties now, but it doesn’t matter. The nastiness just keeps getting worse, and everybody knows protest votes are useless.

True enough—but let’s take a closer look at just why that is. Most voters who are offended by nasty campaigning do not cast protest votes. Instead, they “hold their noses” and vote for the major-party candidate they dislike least. Because negative campaigning is so widespread, both candidates probably are doing it, so a lot of people reluctantly vote for whichever candidate they would have chosen anyway. As a result, there is no downside to negative campaigning. Politicians sling the mud without restraint, hoping more of it sticks to their opponent.
 

Mud wrestling in an outdoor pit.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Even if some voters are disgusted enough to choose third parties, they are not making a clear statement in favor of civility because nobody knows why they voted as they did. If a third party gets more votes than usual in a particular year, that might have nothing to do with the behavior of the major-party candidates. Maybe it’s because voters are more interested in the third party’s issues or see the third party’s candidate as having better qualifications.

The Civility Party would change things by accurately tracking the number of votes lost because of campaign nastiness. In close elections with a lot of mudslinging, that number could end up being more than the margin of victory. Such results would demonstrate to both politicians and voters that it really is possible to punish uncivil candidates with enough protest votes to cost them the election. If enough voters got in the habit of doing it, there would be an effective structural deterrent to negative campaigning.

Of course, in states or districts where one major party or the other regularly wins by a large margin, Civility Party votes would have no impact (except in a state like California that has open primaries). But realistically, the campaign budgets for such areas are small anyway. The vast majority of general-election campaigning takes place in competitive states and districts where victory comes down to persuading a small number of moderate and independent voters to choose one side or the other. And that’s where the Civility Party could play the spoiler effectively.

It probably will never happen though, because by the time we reached the point where enough voters cared strongly about civility to make a difference in the outcome of elections, our culture likely would have changed enough for the better that a Civility Party wouldn’t be needed.

I gave this post a tag I haven’t used before: Politics. Although this blog is almost five years old and some of the posts have touched on political matters, I never used Politics as a tag before now. That was by design. When I created this site, I envisioned it as a place to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of life in the modern world. Rather than writing about particular controversies in the political arena, I wanted to take a broader view of the underlying cultural issues.

I didn’t give much thought to the arena itself—a word that now strikes me as quite apropos in light of recent events that brought to mind the Circus Maximus, complete with gladiators, lions, condemned Christians, and a gleeful crowd of bloodthirsty spectators. Although the dysfunctional American two-party system obviously has been far from ideal for many years, I assumed it was a short-term problem that would improve as people became more comfortable in a changing world. It’s now clear just how far off the mark that complacent assumption turned out to be.
 

circus-maximus

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

How did we find ourselves in this dystopian alternate reality where discussing candidates’ qualifications and voting in national elections, which used to be seen as a shared moral obligation to exercise civic responsibilities prudently for the good of the community, now amount to fighting on a bloody battlefield in a cultural civil war where nothing matters but winning at all costs?

A large part of it, I would say, is in the words we use—war, battlefield, fighting. Reading them just now, you probably didn’t think twice about it because we’ve all gotten so used to seeing political differences of opinion framed in such terms. Journalists do it all the time. Advocacy organizations routinely send out appeals for help with the fight against this, the war on that, and the battle for whatever. War metaphors have reached saturation level in our society. Most of the time we don’t even consciously notice them anymore; but in the murky depths below the surface of our awareness, they’re wreaking havoc on our collective psyche.

It’s not that we literally see as enemies the family down the street who put up a yard sign supporting the other party’s candidate. Most of us are civil enough in real life that we’re still going to smile and wave when we pass by their house and see them in the yard, even if we later grumble to ourselves that they should have known better than to fall for the other party’s propaganda. But when we turn on the talk shows, get into conversations about politics online, or go to rallies where our candidate whips up the crowd into a frenzy, the usual rules of civil society fall by the wayside. The insults fly fast and furious, until it starts to feel like that’s the normal way of things.

When we look at the political divide as a war, rather than as a mutual lack of understanding and a failure to communicate, we close our minds to any prospect of finding solutions through respectful dialogue and cooperation. Destroying the other party seems like the only way to get anything done. Primary voters don’t look for moderate candidates who would try to work productively with the other party because that seems downright impossible. After a while, extremists sound like they’re only being realistic.

To change things for the better, we’re going to have to take responsibility as individuals to make decisions based on our shared cultural values, including civility and respect. A good place to start would be to pay more attention to our word choices and replace those war metaphors with calmer and more constructive language. Social issues and political disagreements don’t always have to be fights and battlefields. We need to find a better way, for everyone’s sake, because ultimately we are all on the same side.