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February 11, 2012

Religion Column: What has happened to civility back in public discourse?

Daily Star

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This is a major election year. The American people will elect a president, all members of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. Numerous other state and local positions will be up for election. That means we will be inundated with political advertising. When I think about the political advertising during the past few years, I wonder what has happened to civility in public discourse.

It is not only in advertising that civility is lacking, it seems to be lacking in the entire political arena. There used to be people in congress and the senate who put the country ahead of party. They would argue vociferously about an issue, but at the end of the day, those on the two sides of the issue would have dinner together. There was a feeling of respect. They could disagree without hating the opponent.

It appears that attitude is gone. There seems to be no respect for people. There seems to be no respect for someone who has a different viewpoint or belief. That is a big loss for society. I remember having discussions with people I disagreed with. Maybe we never changed the views of anyone who took part in the discussion, but we were able to understand that one's belief is not all there is to the individual. We often came out of the discussion with a new respect for the individual with whom we disagreed.

In a previous church, there was an issue that came before the board. The chairperson of the board was against passing the issue and spoke out strongly against it. When the vote was taken, the issue passed, and the chair said, "It passed. We own it. We will all support it." I gained much respect for that person that evening. Personal thoughts and ideas were put aside for the good of the church. I wish I could hear people in Washington and Albany speak like that.

There seems to be no lack of hatred in public speech. A phrase is taken out of context and is then used to show how one's opponent believes something much different than s/he really believes. Much of the public is so turned off by political advertising, they do not pay attention to it. That is sad, because honest political discourse is important.

The televised so-called debates are usually statements by a candidate of "what I believe" and "what my opponent does not believe." There may be arguments, but there is seldom an actual debate about issues. Maybe it is safer to jump on an opponent's view rather than making a clear statement of what one believes.

Even religious leaders get in on the act. There was a website from a church that stated its view that God is a God of hatred, not of love. That contention is that God hates wrong much more than God loves right. That gives them the right to speak out in a mean way. How often have we heard representatives of one religion or another, speak ill of those who believe differently than they do? If people of faith cannot get along, or at least, tolerate each other, what hope is there for the rest of the world? I am thankful for the Interfaith Council here in Oneonta and the activities, such as the interfaith Thanksgiving worship, sponsored by the committee.

I remember hearing a proverb that apparently cannot be attributed as a quote to any one person: "Profanity is the effort of a feeble mind to express itself forcibly." Profanity is rampant in today's society. I was walking behind two teenage girls in the mall one afternoon. It seemed like every other word they said was profanity. I have heard parents swearing at their young children.

Many years ago when I worked in broadcasting, there were definite guidelines as to what could not be said on radio or shown on television. Those days are long gone. Now nearly anything goes. Nothing seems to shock anymore. I think we, as a people, are poorer because of that.

What can we do as individuals in Otsego County to help bring civility back to public discourse? Probably not much, but we can pay attention to what we say and do. If we truly believe in God as creator, all people deserve our respect.

The Rev. Fred Albrecht is pastor at the Hartwick and Mount Vision United Methodist Churches.