« Civility and the Bodies Politic | Main | Love and Shame in a Networked World »

Inching toward a new paradigm of the public square in democracies

The parable of Balaam’s ass is a wonderful starting point for the application of Old Testament wisdom to conversations on the public square. It is one of my favorite historical stories, and I was glad to read about Mark’s use of it in his classes. It makes for a good Old Testament counterpart to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Most modern discussions of civility start with a negative sense of the law in how it restricts the individual, groups, administrations or governments from interfering with free speech and conscience, the John Stuart Mills’ emphasis on legal or ethical restraints. Balaam’s ass could be read as a story about the value of negative law: restraints on action and speech that could lead to tyranny.

The older story’s emphasis for us is on the limits of our own willfulness and certainty that afflicts so many of our public claims about our knowledge. Balaam seems to have been a prophet for hire and was asked by the Moabite king to curse Israel. On his way to do this awful deed, God placed an angel with a sword in his arm that only the ass could see. I can imagine that the sword looked like it was flaming with fire in the hands of an angel! This is a pretty strong limit on speech! But the ass found his voice, which is partly the point. Somebody else may be able to warn us about our mistakes if we will just listen for a moment. Mark connects this moment of restraint as a time-out for Balaam to recognize that he needs to live faithfully toward God and His people.

We should have a well-founded fear that we are not listening to God or to people, even asses, who are telling us God’s truth. Balaam’s ass is a good metaphor for the way Christians like Martin Luther have invoked a claim to humbleness before the Word of God. Christians like Mark focus on the parable’s meaning that we should humbly listen to those who disagree with us. As a Haitian American lady pastor told me and my staff for A Journey through NYC religions on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, the reason I needed non-Christians on our staff was that they can pull my pride down and tell me where I am wrong. This active presence demands good listening. She said, “We Christians ae not very good at listening.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan, on the other hand, is pure New Testament. It emphasizes what we can call positive law: the demand to do good. Here, Jesus’ focus was not primarily on highlighting the advantages of the law’s restraints. His emphasis was on how an overly high focus on the restraints of law can cause us to miss what the outcast, the lowly, or the heretic can teach us on how to do good. It is not enough to restrain from doing evil. In fact, Balaam, the hireling prophet, not only didn’t curse Israel but took the first step toward being a Good Samaritan by blessing Israel as it passed towards invasion and seizure of the Promised Land. Mark’s presentation and mine make for a complete “bible” for the public square.

Of course, we can press too many lessons out of historical parables. And there are many other questions that need to be addressed. How will this approach differ when implemented within different types of political systems and cultural contexts?  Another dilemma is how to sort the wheat from the chaff in the free speech and acts of compassion. Finally, what do you do when civility is violated and there is an unwillingness to see the good, effective ideas and practices among your enemies?

Mark mentions that God speaks like Karl Barth proclaims in Church Dogmatics 1,1 where he wrote, “God may speak through Russian communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog.” This bit of hyperbole leaves open on how to discern what is it that God is saying or not saying. I assume that this task is a large topic in Mark’s ethics and theology classes.

What is needed is an art of discernment to refine out the impurities. We must be wary of declaring God’s revelation on what pleases ourselves ideologically or personally.



What must you do to inherit eternal life? the lawyer asked Jesus. You must love God and your neighbor as the directive authorities in your life. These are not instrumental values to be abandoned once you have achieved bliss. Rather, love of God and neighbor ae values that are intrinsic to what is in the character of a loving person.

In addition to Mill’s civility or God’s restraining rules on Balaam’s trade as a prophet, Jesus brings us to the issue of character and how it leads to a certain type of discourse with inherit values that signify a heavenly reality within and beyond the person. His interrogator obviously wanted a set of rules to determine what is a neighbor – just tell us what to do and to whom, the legal scholar said facetiously. This is where Jesus told the lawyer that he needed to look beyond the law to the lawless as his neighbors and to their example of love.

What Jesus was pushing his interrogator to do was to look within himself to see if he had the right heart that would adhere like love to right action and words. This heart could only come from above in the form of deep forgiveness for the uncivil impulses in the lawyer’s heart.

Learning from one’s enemy and practicing civility is a matter of a loving character, not just useful tools for the establishment of democracy, truth or peace.

This character approach means that the rules for civility are rather different than “restraining oneself or the government.” I have already discussed how the inability to see good sense and values in our enemies should be a punishable offense. How does this approach affect our rules of civility? Let me offer a few starting points for further discussion.


Making space for the bruised reeds

Jesus said that how we treat the least of the people among us, the weakest, the most bruised, and the man or woman most far down in society, is a test of our goodness. So in a debate, we always need to keep in the forefront of our mind who are the least. More toleration and mercy goes to the man or woman furthest down, and the least allowance for public discourse mistakes go to the elites. This rule of thumb may force us to noticed actors among us who need more space to speak and to learn how to speak up.

On most college campuses, the people least represented in the power structures and the professorate are the political and religious conservatives. So, this means that we need to increase their numbers and to give them proportionally more leeway in campus debates. In the few predominately conservative campuses, the liberals need similar affirmative action.


Snow flakes and loud mouths

The current debates over the need for cleaning up oppressive language so that weaker groups have affirmative treatment reveals a need to not bruise the weak with language and invidious categories. Conservatives have thrown back this approach as mandating “the culture of “snow flakes” of overly sensitive people. Conservatives are rightly concerned that on predominately liberal campuses, speech codes will be used as weapons against them.  However, I think that the conservatives are missing an opportunity to learn how to give and receive compassion.

The purpose of academia is to encourage a robust growth of strong thinkers and compassionate hearts. Who could argue with this? Likewise, Mark expresses a skepticism about speech codes because he wonders if the restraint of speech by equating some speech with violence will weaken autonomy and responsibility of students.

Still, conservatives should not be so opposed to making space for the weaker parties, because they are actually the weaklings on campus. In certain industries, like the news media, conservatives are like an underground of abused spouses. Surely, they should welcome an invitation to come out loud and proud with the stronger liberals helping them to learn the ropes of public discussion.

Secular liberals control most positions of academic power centers and have promulgated networks, scholarship and language that defeats conservative maturation. So, the campus minorities need a little helping hand with “safe spaces” to tell their stories and learn how to participate in campus public affairs.

The problem is that loudmouth liberals and conservatives dominate the discussions so that the more soft spoken and less aggressive students and professors have little voice.

The principle of not bruising the weakest is to make sure that everyone has space to speak and learn how to speak in the public square whether it is the small venue of a classroom or a big one like a town hall meeting.


The transgressives

In our democracy, there are always some who try to attract attention or to gain voice by transgressing civil boundaries. It is better to not formally permit this but to leave open forgiveness for breaches of civility if the result is constructive dialogue and debate. This will support Mark’s goal of stronger selves with a strong sense of responsibility.

It is pretty common that the powers-that-be define appropriate speech as those styles and occasions that don’t threaten the status quo. Transgressive behavior and speech is sometimes the only way to get a fair hearing. Further, class and ethnic differences in speaking and arguing may be creating the grit in charitable speaking and humiliating silences. However, transgressions that try to stifle other people’s speech are no longer attempts to gain voice but to suppress someone else’s voice. The authoritarian character of such an endeavor is rejected by the Good Samaritan as a way of being that builds bad character.

Some trigger-warning happy liberals want to be tender to those socially weaker groups like females, African Americans, and so forth. They seem to believe in a robust tough love for conservatives however. The trigger-warning liberals want to silence their opponents. The conservatives who denounce the snowflake culture believe that students and citizens should be toughened up by exposure to robust debates and disagreements. They believe in tough love for everyone. They want character that gives strength to stand up against wrong-headedness. Within limits, Mark too has sympathy for an approach that builds agency and responsibility.

The liberals and conservatives are both right, but not in the way that either group believes. Some groups on campus or in the public do need some protection and safe space to grow strong in their reasoning and activism. On most campuses, these groups are most likely to be the political and religious conservatives. On the other hand, conservatives are missing the importance of growing into a Good Samaritan character that learns from liberals new ways of compassion.


A real world application of the Good Samaritan and Balaam’s Ass principles

The classical liberal campus favors the free interchange of ideas and critiques with an eye toward the progress of knowledge. This scholarly combat seems to have ended up in the idea that knowledge is power, and power creates knowledge. Or in reaction, there is a certain aversion to have debates so that we can all be nice to each other.

I am going to leave the filling out of the campus picture to Mark and others. However, there is a very similar situation in today’s news media. The old paradigm of the free interplay of critical news reporting has left a residue of a massive distrust of the news media in the general public and some panglossian searches for happy news, which the New York Times spotlights in its feature “The Week in Good News.”

The old news media paradigm is broken. The public trust in the news media is at an all-time low. Profits have plummeted. In 2017, less than 30% of Americans also say that they trust the media a lot, according to a Pew Center study. 72% of Americans say that they believe that news organizations play favorites in politics. Revenue for newspapers has dropped 63% since 2006.

We need a paradigm change about how we do journalism if we are going to protect free speech and toleration on the public square. Our country and news readers are more divided than ever before, and in this contentious setting, the old model of skeptical journalism will not work to protect free speech in the public square. To believe in the chimera of “fact-checking” by the people who are so distrusted will just undermine any trust of objective reporting. Such journalism will only be more divisive and increase intolerance. Instead, a Good Samaritan approach would create a journalistic paradigm of sympathetic objectivity that is the only way that free speech and tolerance will be preserved. I would now add Mark’s emphasis on the Balaam’s Ass principles of restraint and listening as a completion of the paradigm of sympathetic objectivity. Let me sketch out a little what I mean.


The old and new paradigms

The old way of doing journalism is based on the idea that a journalist is the prosecutor and judge of the people being covered by the news media. It is rooted in the investigative journalism paradigm.

The usual method of journalists is to start with skepticism in order to arrive at an objective picture, then to add sympathy toward the end of the reporting process. Over time, the reporter’s skepticism can harden into cynicism about their informants and, at worst, about life itself. The public too has become cynical about journalists. The public believes that journalists tactically fake sympathy at the beginning of the interviews in order to advance their reporting. So, it would appear that an important source of the distrust between the journalists and their public lays in the philosophy and training of modern journalists. Objectivity, investigation, check on power, cultural criticism/war, and snark are all based on an oppositional model of journalism.

Each of these approaches is rooted in an attitude of superiority and distance between the journalists and the audience. Is it any surprise that an enterprise that starts with a judgmental attitude creates hostility in its audience?

While we also highly esteem investigative reporting, we don’t think it is the primary paradigm for journalism. Rather, most reporting in democratic societies should be rooted in a concern for building a healthy social trust and community well-being. Journalism should flip the journalistic triad and start with genuine sympathy and empathy, move to objectivity, and then if called for, add criticism.

The reporter should start with an affirmation that the person whom he or she is interviewing has a great story to tell about his or her life or organization. That if communicated, the story could enrich the whole community. This involves a sympathy with the interviewee’s life, hopes, and struggles and an empathy so that you can almost feel the other’s mindset in your mind. As one goes through the process of objectively weighing the value of the claims, a journalist may discern a need for skepticism.

While he was articles editor at Fast Company, Jeff Chu well characterized this approach, “Open minds and open hearts make for better interviews. Skepticism later if necessary.” But note that even skeptical reports are received by an audience that now believes the news media is on their side. So, even criticism of a sacred cow is more likely to be given a hearing. Sympathetic objectivity reduces the social friction of investigative journalism.

A democracy is not sustainable just on the basis of tolerance of competing viewpoints or understanding of the arguments of the opponents. A rational understanding is not an emotional connection to another person or an audience, though it may lead to one. A democracy flourishes when the fractious groups see some hint of value-added in what each other do. “Bless your enemies” becomes much easier to do over the long run in a democratic society when you see how your enemies help you at times. All are Good Samaritans, not just the anti-Trump people or the Trump people.

Our journalists at A Journey through NYC religions have already presented “sympathetic objectively” to a number of journalism schools and gatherings of editors and journalists. The typical reaction is “that’s not journalism” (by the well-known writer at a national news weekly) or “that’s not what I learned in journalism school.” However, upon further reflection, they have found that the critics are won over. A former editor at a big city newspaper confessed, “It was caring for the community that was why I originally went into journalism.” This was the motivating reason for many of his colleagues. Sympathetic objectivity gives them a paradigm and language that fits their original hopes. This seems consistent with what Mark does in “helping students develop virtues associated with critical and charitable engagement.”

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>