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01/18/2018

Fostering Civil Discourse – and Humor – in a Partisan Era

By Tarris Rosell, PhD, DMin

Fifteen years ago in the aftermath of 9/11, I was invited to respond as an Ethics panelist to a new, self-published book, The Fundamentals of Extremism (Blaker, et al., New Boston Books, Inc., 2003). The authors aimed to expose “the Christian Right” as a danger to democracy. While I sympathized with chief editor Kimberly Blaker’s agenda, the book itself struck me as taking much the same rhetorical tack as the religious fundamentalists that she and her co-authors vociferously critiqued.

My invitation to a book-signing event came with the expectation that I, a progressive clergyman ethicist, would be an enthusiastic proponent who might also help sell a few books. While preparing remarks, I was challenged with the dilemma of not wanting to disappoint a young author with worthy aims, while also engaging in truth-telling as I saw it. Most importantly, I wished not to support or practice the very thing we both condemned: divisive, speculative, paranoid, demonizing fundamentalist—or even anti-fundamentalist—rhetoric. Unfortunately, to my Ethics eyes, The Fundamentals of Extremism was pretty much what it denounced.

So, for my panel presentation, I resorted to writing poetry, or possibly doggerel – an Ethics response in rhyme.

It seemed to me then, and now, that our ideological divisions are ameliorated best by civil discourse laced with mutual respect and a dose of good humor. This is difficult, and especially so when the stakes appear high, as they did back then, and now. Yet, if we who disagree with political or religious extremism engage in the same sort of rhetoric and behaviors as those we oppose, if our own claims are factually challenged anecdotes and innuendo, we only foster more schism and less democracy.

This is the poem I wrote (with minor edits). I think it still works in the partisan era of Trump.

An Anti-Fundamentalist Confession

Tarris Rosell
© 2003, 2018
I’m fundamentally opposed to fundamentalism,
And separate myself from those who foster any schism.
I feel an obligation to expose the boorish Right
And other such extremists whom the rest of us must fight.
I fear their chief ambition is to slay democracy;
Their paranoia leads them to engage conspiracy.
They’d have us all subservient to Fundie* ways of being,
Dichotomize and simplify our thinking and our seeing.
Black and white, or good and bad, on absolutist values
Strikes me as absolutely wrong, as I’m compelled to tell you.
Yet, in my strident anti-fundamentalist critique,
Another thought has struck me, and has left me feeling meek.
One problem with Conservatives in all their stridency
Is one that tempts both Right and Left as human tendency.
While exorcism of their demonizing fits the facts,
Sometimes I look into the mirror and see “Them” looking back.
The rhetoric we choose to use, the labels we assign,
The latitude we grant to those across the picket line,
Our attitude of hubris, or of apt humility—
All these demark the difference between Us and Them
Or We.

* A pejorative slang abbreviation that refers to religious fundamentalists of any religion or denomination.

Dr. Rosell is the Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics. He is also Professor of Pastoral Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Clinical Professor, History and Philosophy of Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, School of Medicine, and Chair of the Department of Bioethics at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.

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