Thursday, October 18, 2012

Complicated Discussions in a Culture of Sound Bites

I find watching election year debates an extremely frustrating endeavor. If I am frustrated as I watch, I can only imagine the frustration the actual participants feel. Watching the last presidential debate and subsequently reading and reflecting upon people’s comments about it on Facebook hit home to me part of why I feel so frustrated watching these things. I’ll see if I can explain. First to get this out of the way, I am not at all unbiased in the upcoming election, and I’m not even pretending to be. I am not one of those clueless undecided voters, because I see a clear distinction between the two sides, so if that colors how I viewed the last debate, I won’t apologize for it. I’m not pretending to be unbiased here because I don't have to be, and I wish more people would be honest about their biases, too. If you aren’t decided at this point, you aren’t thinking about the issues and how very differently the two sides view the world. Not really the point of this post, though. 

We live in an age when people don’t seem to want lengthy discussions and well-reasoned arguments that take more than about a minute or two to explain. We want a quick answer that makes us feel good and doesn’t require us to do the hard work of thinking through a complex argument. We want a pithy sound bite or Facebook post or Twitter....twit, would that be what a post to Twitter is? I wouldn’t know, I haven’t entered the confusing world of Twitter yet. I’m hopelessly behind the times, it would seem.

Anyway, as I watched the last debate, I grew increasingly frustrated at how 2 minutes just isn’t enough time to adequately answer a question in any coherent and well-reasoned sort of way, no matter your bias, and then the opposing side gets to spend their response time totally mischaracterizing and LYING about what the first speaker just said, and then when the first speaker tries to clarify his position, people say he’s a bully, he’s mean, he’s too aggressive, he’s running over the moderator (who in this case was blatantly biased for the president, hello?) blah, blah, blah. You know what? I don’t think it’s mean or being a bully to refuse to sit back and have your position completely misrepresented. And the problem is, really, that the issues being discussed need much more than 2 minutes and a pithy sound bite to adequately discuss and hash out. And when my Facebook friends and ‘news’ anchors go on and on about how neither candidate is ‘nice’ that just frustrates me to no end. When did our warped definition of ‘nice’ trump reasoned and rational and even passionate discussion of serious issues? Why is being ‘nice’ more important than having your position clearly articulated and understood? You don’t go into politics and set yourself up on that high a stage to be ‘nice,’ and if your skin isn’t thick enough to go to the mat for what you believe is right, you shouldn’t be there.  I’m not really looking to elect the ‘nicest’ person. I’m looking for someone who has a realistic understanding of the issues at hand and will be a leader who is looking for what’s best for the country and whose view of what’s best for the country is closer in alignment with my own. I don’t really care if he’s so ‘nice’ that he sits back and doesn’t clearly articulate important issues. If refusing to allow your postion on very important issues to be misrepresented is being a bully, well, so be it. And I don’t blame Mitt Romney one bit for insisting on attempting to get what he wanted said said. THAT is what the debates are supposed to be about. Call me goofy, but I’d rather do away with artifical time limit rules and such and actually give each candidate time to actually spell out their positions. Because serious issues need much more than 2 minutes or a sound bite to lay out the foundation and rationale.

I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, a very long, at times, to me, tedious book. I didn’t agree with Ayn Rand’s atheism, obviously, but I did find much to agree with and at least think on in her understanding of how capitalism works and how dangerous the entitlement worldview is to a country and a people. Her main character spends pages and pages and pages expounding on his philosophy, and let me tell you, a mere sound bite would never have encapsulated what he was trying to say. That’s true of any complex issue that people need to discuss. 

Another thing about sound bites is that they can be spun any way the media and listeners want to spin them when they are devoid of their context. A Twitter twit may be witty and pithy, but devoid of context it’s open to the interpretation of the reader. A quote may be an awesome quote, but taken by itself without the context that developed it, it can often be taken to mean something vastly different from what the original author or speaker meant it to mean. 

As important as political discussion is, and it IS important, I find it even more true and troubling in discussion of Christianity and the Bible that pithy little quips and short little quotes and cutesy little church sign slogans (hello??) do not adequately address complex ideas. For example, I am reading a devastatingly thoughtful and good book at the moment, The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler. I’ve been highlighting quotes on practically every page, and I’ve often started to link a quote to my Facebook page, thinking, “What an important and needful thing to say!” But every time I have stopped myself from putting out the quote, because I realized that the quote by itself devoid of the discussion in the pages and paragraphs before it that laid the foundation and context of the quote would not be nearly as powerful absent that context. Context is VITAL to understanding difficult or complex ideas. Sound bites may be pithy and interesting, but they are open to much misinterpretation if all you hear are the sound bite or the isolated quote. No matter how solid the quote, you have to have the context of the fuller development of the issue to fully grasp the meaning of the idea being conveyed. And I am not of the postmodern school of flawed thinking that says that truth is relative. No, you have to look at what the speaker or author meant and understand the full context of the issue being discussed, stop relying on your feelings and emotions solely and THINK LOGICALLY about things. Not is this true to me, or do I feel good about this, or is it ‘nice,’ but is it TRUE

And while we’re on the subject of context, this is one of the reasons I am not a huge fan of ‘favorite Bible verses.’ Hear me out for a second. We evangelicals have a bunch of favorite verses we memorize and write on coffee cups and t-shirts and toss out as encouragement and such, and many, many, many, many times we take those verses out of context and mangle the actual meaning. One of the most misused verses that comes readily to mind for me as I’m typing this is Psalm 46:10. We see that used so often to mean something like, “Don’t worry, God’s got this!” or “Just let go, and let God,” or “Be still, be calm,” in a kind of endorsement of contemplative spirituality. We usually see it written, “Be still and know that I am God.” Did you know that this is not even ALL of that verse? If you read it, the whole verse is, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” To take this even further, have you ever read Psalm 46 in its entirety and looked at verse 10 in its context? It isn’t saying what it’s often portrayed as saying. It’s a rebuke against those who rage against God and saying that all that rebellion will be stilled before Him. It’s a word of refuge for those who trust in God, yes, but it isn’t a call to contemplative stillness, but a call to still the rebellion against God, a statement of His sovereignty over all the earth, and an affirmation that He will be exalted in the earth. There are lots of verses we do this to, take them out of context and take them to mean something they may not actually mean.That’s a dangerous thing when you are talking about the Word of God, and we shouldn’t be playing fast and loose with something so important. Context is vital.

And now you can kind of see why I’m a miserable example of a blogger in that I can’t seem to write a short post. Just using this space to hash out my thoughts. 

1 comment:

Kay said...

Well said. All of it. : )