Civil Discourse and Burning Words

Civil discourse demands honest facts—and sometimes burning words. So let’s rate some talking heads.

Who is helping, and who is hurting, the conversation in our public square? Right and left, they gibber from G-rated to X-rated. Their output runs from plain facts to toxic bigotry.

In January Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was shot in a rampage that left 12 people dead. The Left accused Sarah Palin of inciting hate with a political poster indicating “target” elections with crosshairs.

The Right cried hypocrisy, showing a Democrat poster indicating target elections with bull’s eyes. For a couple weeks, celebrities insisted on a return to civil discourse.

However, a leader’s task is to persuade. A leader’s tools include not only explanation and narration but emotionally high-torque exhortation and accusation. How can we assess our popular pundits, the play-by-play announcers of our public square? Here’s an imperfect rating of some very vocal Americans:

X for frequent bigotry
Genre: Hatemongering
Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church), Bill Maher

NC-17 for personal attacks and hyperbole posing as logic
Genre: Verbal Thuggery
Mike Gallagher, Keith Olberman

R for aggressive intimidation
Genre: Contentious Debate
Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow

Genre: Enthusiastic Advocacy
Hugh Hewitt, Lawrence O’Donnell

Genre: Biased News
Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews

Genre: Advocacy Through Guest Interviews
Greta van Susteren, Joe Scarborough

Our G-rated folks remind me of vanilla. I really like it, but sometimes it’s a little bland. They are dependable for straight news. They express their opinions by the selection of their guests.

The PG talkers offer news-plus. They emphasize their point of view, but they will compliment people with whom they disagree.

PG-13 commentators are for me the most engaging. They don’t feign objectivity. They enthusiastically advocate their concerns as they relate to current news and trends. If you haven’t heard radio host Hugh Hewitt, picture Tucker Carlson pushing his opinions.

The R-rated spinners are masters of debate. They will exploit any verbal misstep by their opponents. They will stretch a logical argument as far as it can possibly go. Their interviews can be bruising.

The NC-17 loudmouths are too passionate to be journalists. They are, unfortunately, comfortable criticizing both the position and the character of the people with whom they disagree. Self-righteous may be a good label. He’s not the same as Mike Gallagher, but Glenn Beck sometimes represents this category.

X-rated hotheads would be censored or jailed in many countries. They push the margins of free speech in America. The U.S. Supreme Court recently cleared Fred Phelps for his anti-homosexual funeral protests. Bill Maher drips contempt for anyone believes in a divine being. Still, we treasure freedom of speech.

I don’t want all commentators to fit in my G-rated category. Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist certainly didn’t fit there: Jesus told religious leaders, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:23). John the Baptist went to jail and was beheaded because he spoke against a political leader taking his sister-in-law as his mistress.

Fiery discourse has a great heritage.


About Ben Unseth

Executive Director at Project Understanding (2014-2017), social service agency in Ventura, CA
This entry was posted in communication, culture, leadership, public square and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Civil Discourse and Burning Words

  1. Susan Sumner says:

    Pastor Unseth,

    While firey discourse has its place, it must not be divorced from the morality of the culture. When morality wans, and entertainment blooms, a disconnect has occurred, and “civil discourse” appears multi-faceted with few constrictions. Freedom of speech without standards of morality which create healthy individuals and nations, is only an avenue for creating a population whom are led without a sense of personal accountability for the state of their moral behavior. They injest various standards of morality, rather than focus on the maturation of thier personal sense of accountability and the ethical behavior they are upheld to and meant to pass on to the next generation.

    Political agendas do not typically create golden standards for moral behavior. For myself, the Bible does map expectations for our own development and the responsibility of sharing this with our family.

    We are fortunate to have a constitution that gives freedom of speech. But without ethical accountability, speech occurs which is purposefully misleading and selects small news bites of information.

    It starts with our own ability to adopt and sustain moral expectations for ourselve and not consume the bombardment of misformation and false moralities in our media.

    • Ben Unseth says:

      The balance, or imbalance, of journalism and entertainment is exactly what I want people to notice. As you say, the Bible is a moral guide to help us through our daily bombardment of media.

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