Tag Archives: totalitarianism

The Way Forward, Part Six: A Public Ethics Primer: What Do We Prohibit, Promote, and Permit?

Common sense and genuine consensus are in short supply in a world on edge and poised for a fight. Objectionable ideas are labeled, ‘triggers” and “violence” when they do not conform to the sensitivities of ever-changing groupthink. Free speech is under assault and critical words about cultural, political, and religious ideas are now “phobias.” Denouncing historical Jewish and Christian beliefs are fair game, however, because they symbolize oppression for the chattering classes untethered to religion.

How do we forge a principled middle ground in the wake of the onslaughts from ideologues more in tune with totalitarianism that pluralistic democracy?  How do we ensure that freedom of conscience and religion, speech and government redress, and peaceable assembly remain foundations for our future?

One way forward is robust debate on ethics that affect public policy. We are not speaking about religious diets, dress, or deportment or the beliefs of peaceful communities. We must have civil discussion toward consensus on the values that will guide our experiment in virtue-based liberty. All societies have explicit and implicit values that help them cohere. For example, keeping promises is not only important for personal relationships. The entire (global and local) economy rests on trust: invoices paid, deliveries made, and the diligent efforts all engaged in the choreography of work. So, there is at least implicit agreement that trust matters.

There are three categories that can help order our thinking. First, what actions must be prohibited, without qualification? Most people will stand against all forms of assault or violence, dishonesty, endangerment of others, and theft, among many more. But before we move on, we must debate some areas that were previously obvious. Will we continue to penalize sexual practices between adults and minors? Will we prosecute crimes that we think are non-violent, but hurt the community, such as shoplifting? Several pharmacies serving the elderly in San Francisco closed because the DA would not prosecute thieves. On the other side, are we going to impose Orwellian limits on speech because some folks take offence? Will we continue to intimidate and silence speakers?

Second, what ideals, values, and actions will we positively promote as a society? Most folks would argue that personal responsibility, hard work, educational advancement, professional excellence, family cohesion, and care for others should be part of a consensus values system. But wait. Many of these values are now considered legacies and memes of oppression. If a father wants to support the mother and child of their union that is noble…unless it gets in the way of an abortion. Some Marxist theories remove almost all agency from the individual, making everyone part of the oppressed or oppressing classes. We should debate what virtues are essential and we will not always agree. The challenge is finding shared ideals in a world that thrives on anger and polarization.

The third category gets at the heart of liberty: what will we permit in a pluralistic society? Will we live peaceably with deep differences and debate with civility? We often confuse permission with promotion, and disagreement with intolerance. Here is an example: a deeply religious person believes that sexual intimacy is reserved for heterosexual, monogamous marriage (Most Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as a start). This same person is a good neighbor to gay couples or common-law couples next door. Desiring others change their practices is not intolerance – it is fidelity to one’s code or faith. Our religious friend is not depriving anyone of love – she or he has their particular standards. We do affirm freedom of conscience and religion and thankfully have no coercive state religion (unlike the majority of Islamic nations that prohibit or severely restrict other faiths). Will we allow the free exchange of moral and spiritual ideas, or marginalize groups that disagree with whatever trendy ideas are capturing the public imagination? Conservatives must affirm full liberty and progressives must not assume certain moral stances are intolerant.

May we care enough about others and pursue such dialogues on our pathways toward liberty and justice for all.

What Does “There” Look Like? 2020 Election Edition

For years I have been challenging myself, other leaders, and elected officials to offer compelling visions of the future that are inclusive, just, and propel all people and communities toward flourishing. Without hope (tempered by realism), we are left with either anarchy leading to new forms of totalitarianism, or timeworn experiments that have proven fruitless.

Here are some questions for those who care about our global and local future:

  • Is your vision inclusive of all classes and cultures? Or are you preying on envy and resentment and fomenting conflict to secure power over others?
  • Is your vision doable and can it be paid for without stifling creativity and opportunity? Are your ideas incrementally achievable or grandiose talking points rooted in scare tactics?
  • Does your vision continue enshrining freedom of conscience, religion, speech, and peaceable assembly, or are you placing whole groups outside the pale because they are not enlightened enough?
  • Does your vision include both changed hearts and just systems? Good intentions are helpful, but without access, equity, and opportunity, they will ring hollow.
  • Does your vision allow for progress without instant perfection and proximate justice on the way to full liberation? Can you find ways for principled compromise?
  • Does your vision build on the lessons of history so that old mistakes are not repeated, and wisdom can be applied afresh to new challenges? Or are you trapped in the recent fallacy that dismisses the insights of previous generations?
  • Does your vision reflect the need for people of character as well as new public policies?

A fresh vision of “there” will require imagination, integrity, intentional action, and a love for continual learning and refinement. We will never build a perfect world, but we can make the present one better.

A Call for Reformation, Not Anarchy and Totalitarianism

We are watching legitimate outrage and protest being co-opted by groups determined to destroy institutions and replace them with their own forms of oppression. History is replete with positive initial intentions being subverted: The French Revolution started with good intentions and ultimately imploded and yielded Napoleonic power. The Russian Revolution in 1917 began with democratic forces beginning to fashion a new future, and by 1922 Bolshevik Communists led by Lenin inaugurated one of the most repressive regimes in history. Millions were hopeful in 1949 when Mao led a Communist takeover…by 1970, millions of Chinese had perished in the “Cultural Revolution.”

I support millions protesting peacefully.

I support reforms for our criminal justice system.

I support serious changes in fostering access, equity, and opportunity of all, especially the African Americans living under generational oppression and poverty.

I support civil, passionate debate.

But looting and violence – especially destructive to the poor neighborhoods that need the most help – and calls to defund and even eradicate police forces will not yield the sustainable justice all people of conscience desire.

We need reform.

Reform is a powerful term that avoids mere “tweaking” and modification while retaining the goodness of the particular category. In addition to much needed reforms in the criminal justice and police systems, here are some more categories for reform. As I share these, please do not assume that I am implying Left or Right Ideologies for answers. We need wisdom that embraces personal dignity and systemic change, personal responsibility and the common good, and the humility to learn from history and embrace hope.

Here are more candidates for reform: Failed political machines in many cities. Educational systems. Mental health services deserve much more attention and financing. Ending the redlining and unspoken class and race prejudice in economic development. Our welfare systems need overhauling. Our military-industrial complex deserves careful scrutiny. And all religious and non-profit organizations must cease making excuses and papering over serious failures. 

Many more categories of reform are needed, but there is one more that is foundational to all others: The reformation of our own hearts and minds. I am asking God to remove prejudice and pretension and fill me with timeless truth and timely wisdom rooted in love. 

We must ask the hard questions and see how we might reform the very systems that are designed to empower and provide, protect and support our highest ideals. Charisma and competency matter, but character will be the difference between a moment of fame and enduring change.

“Triggers” Keep Us from Truth, Part 1

To all who are “triggered” by the free exchange of ideas:
Be careful what you agitate for…once you go down the road of restricting liberty of conscience and expression, you will find there is no end to the paranoia, lust for power, and totalitarianism lurking just below the surface. We now have the marginal at the center and the center at the margins.

The lessons of the French Revolution, the evils of the USSR’s formation and expansion, Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s destruction of Cambodia, Iran’s self-immolation…all of these started with words like “freedom” and “the people” and ended with authoritarians killing “counterrevolutionary” people. 

Now we have feminist pioneers being eviscerated for not wanting men to compete in women’s sports. Science is thrown out the window and feelings reign supreme. Religious business owners (only Christian, by the way) are targeted for destruction. Arresting thieves becomes a cause for accusations of a “history of racism” with college leaders agitating…and when found out, hiding behind the very First Amendment they hate so much. 
Cambridge scholars cannot speak at Oxford. Former Muslims are forced off platforms. Exposure of jihadism becomes a cause for accusation of another “phobe.” 

We can do better in a free and virtuous society. But we must have the character and courage to debate without rancor and live peaceably with our deepest differences.