The 21st century is challenging as well as confusing, a time when America is equally divided on events and issues on which we once agreed as common sense or were able to compromise.
Negotiation and compromise are now the exception to the rule. This is unsettling to those on either side of an issue as well as both political parties.
We can view the occupation of the Capitol building on January 6th as either a violent insurrection invasive of sacred spaces or a harmless political protest over a stolen election.
We can maintain that there are only two genders, determined at birth, or that we are free to choose our gender and “identify” as the one that best suits us. Transgender kids should receive corrective counseling, or transgender kids should receive gender-affirming care, drugs, and surgery.
There is no immigration problem, or, the country is overrun by illegal aliens. Natural gas is the answer; green energy is the answer.
Government secrecy is essential to national security; the government is too secretive and overclassifies embarrassing material. Property rights? Your property is my property; you owe me, and when I claim what’s mine it’s not a crime. And so it goes.
Whether we get closer together on major issues or become even more divisive is anyone’s guess. The point here is that more than ever it is important that we engage in rational thinking and disciplined behavior in times of increasingly irrational thought and uncontrolled impulse.
Issues like racism, police brutality, election fraud, economic inequity, and even Supreme Court decisions have become excuses for street violence, mob rule, and widespread property damage, repeatedly.
Despite channels available to us in a democracy, we have steadily chosen rage and destruction, like a third-rate country.
The answer is neither simple nor easily executed. Success in turning away from anger, division, and violence begins not with government oversight but with the individual. The individual’s expression of thoughts and beliefs, born of closely held convictions, are what our founders sought to protect with a constitution and bill of rights.
The assumption was that within each person lies the capacity to think, be informed, and act responsibly. Ours was perhaps the first country to be established on such risky assumptions.
Yet it mostly worked for a couple of centuries. Our nation eventually became a world power and remains a refuge for the oppressed.
The solution still lies with individuals, their thoughts, and their beliefs. In specific, we need citizens who can think, reason, and make wise decisions driven by core values, a personal code of conduct.
Soldiers have a code of conduct in time of war. Physicians operate under a code of conduct. Important work and ethical outcomes require innate individual standards.
It all depends on an individual who holds personal values dear and lives those values. Values are transmitted by institutions like family, faith, school, and even government.
When these institutions fail to provide individuals with a belief system which values other’s lives, respects other’s property, and instills self-control, the door is opened to chaos, anarchy, and a descent to brutal animal instinct.
So where are we with our beliefs and values? What guides us in 2023? Family can instill personal beliefs, but nuclear families have declined and families redefined. Schools can instill personal values, but schools don’t appear to be making the grade, and many critics advocate alternatives to public education. In fact, schools and families have come into conflict.
Faith-based institutions clearly are about instilling values, but mainstream religions shrink and anti-Semitism grows.
Evangelical Christians and Muslims alike are viewed as zealots at best and political threats at worst. Many prefer religious hypocrites stay well away from school and government.
Still, it’s necessary that we trust the individual, educate him or her, and inculcate values and moral precepts, that personal code of conduct; doing so in a way that encourages clear thinking and sound decision-making by citizens that benefits the larger community. And yet recent generations significantly distrust institutions. So what can we do?
We could try to make thinking popular again. We should value education as preparation for life choices, not just academics or vocational preparation. That means we restore respect for differing opinions on campuses. We encourage every student to develop their own code of conduct and as a parent pass it on to their child. We encourage the teaching of debate, rhetoric, ethics, and critical thinking.
Along with our fascination with diversity, we should encourage diversity of ideas, opinion, and perspectives. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and there we are woefully lacking when compared to our forebearers centuries ago. Ironic, isn’t it, in the information age.
Is this just pie in the sky? Unrealistic conjecture? Anti-intellectualism? Perpetuating inequity?
Let’s put it in practical terms: Who would you rather work alongside: a peer with an ingrained sense of right and wrong, developed from the accumulated wisdom of centuries of brilliant thinkers and tempered with the compassion of faith, or, someone whose ethics depend on the situation, who makes it up as they go?
Whatever the complaint, the axe to grind, or the flaw we choose to focus on, future success or failure falls squarely where it did almost 250 years ago.
Then we were the beneficiaries of great minds, well-educated leaders, and individuals who came together with great inner strength, each with a set of personal convictions nurtured by important relationships with each other, broad education, and faith, resulting in strong inner codes of conduct.
In an uncivil world, they were able to coalesce around a noble cause and create a civilized system that protected free expression and fostered rugged individualism. Their success is well-documented. So is our current lack of success.
Without understanding the truths we once held to be self-evident, this great nation will drift aimlessly in a sea of self-loathing and uncertainty, destined to become just another waning civilization whose best days are behind it, whose people speak wistfully of the “greatest generation.”
Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor are once again at stake.
Think about it.
Gene G. Blair has been a resident of Huntsville for 43 years. He is retired from the Criminal Justice Center at SHSU, and he is a retired veteran of the U.S. Army. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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