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Modesty in political discourse

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Peter W. Marty, guest columnist

When bird-watchers head out with a pair of binoculars strung around their neck, they often pack along a paperback guide listing different bird species of the region. Yet regardless of how thick the paperback, or how powerful the binos, birders can still get stumped. Even the most avid ones spot birds they cannot recognize.

In her book, The Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman notes a catchall category for these unrecognizable birds: LBJs. That’s not a reference to the 36th president of the United States but to “little brown jobs” — birds whose identity puzzles even the experts.

There is something attractive about an expert being unable to claim certainty over everything in his or her field. Such modesty, or restraint of speech, helps foster curiosity and questions. It opens one’s imagination to the wisdom of others. But this modesty is fast disappearing from political conversation in America.

Stubborn personal opinion easily supplants thoughtful and reflective perspective. Noisy bluster — even boorish speech — eclipses carefully crafted words. Vicious destruction of an opponent through innuendo or rude conspiracy theory is more attractive than healthy give-and-take conversation. In the political arena, the most clamorous participants hardly know what a little brown job is. As far as they are concerned, whatever an LBJ is, it must be beneath them, and it surely connotes weakness.

Who knows where all this absence of restraint and forfeit of reason comes from? Why is it that so many candidates, and the rest of us who sit in front of our screens functioning like armchair political analysts, cannot rein it in a bit? What happened to the pause button on our absolute certainty about all matters political?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I wonder if we have over-glorified the concept of instinct. So eager to release a strident opinion bursting from within us, we turn to our gut. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, extols the virtue of snap judgments. “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberatively,” he writes. That claim may be true. Operating on our gut certainly makes life more straightforward and clear. But it’s not infallible. It can easily shut down an interest in listening to others, and a willingness to admit wrong.

We’re a long way from speaking contritely about our frailties and foibles. Confession is not a part of our national language. The rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln is not likely to return to 21st century politics. But using more carefully crafted words with less presumption in them would go a long way toward restoring more civility in American political life.

If political candidates and their enthusiasts would keep in mind one thought that haunts me every time I climb into the pulpit, it would be this: Once a word gets spoken, and released from one’s mouth, there is no way to ever unspeak that word; no way to remove it from the ears of the hearer. It’s gone. Gone for good … or for ill.

• Peter W. Marty, publisher of the Christian Century magazine and senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, will speak about “The Often Uneasy Relationship between Faith and Citizenship” on Friday, Sept. 9 at the monthly Intersections Luncheon: a project about civility hosted by Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Intersections is held at First Presbyterian Church (310 5th St SE, Cedar Rapids) from 11:45 a.m-1 p.m. The cost is $10, which includes lunch, and is payable at the door. Reservations are needed by Sept. 6 and may be made by calling (319)364–6148 or by email: CRintersections@interfaithallianceiowa.org

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