Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Brief Detour: The Presidential Debates

Having just started this blog, I’m afraid that I haven't said enough about my religious perspective yet to articulate my political convictions in a meaningful way. So unfortunately, I cannot respond to the specific points that were raised in the first presidential debate tonight. Nevertheless, I think it is worth raising a question that was not asked in the debate or in the analysis that followed: How does watching this debate shape my character as a viewer? This is the question that matters most to me as a Christian.  

To address this question, let’s begin by reflecting on the ritual of the presidential debate itself. It is very appropriate to think about the debates as a national ritual and to understand ourselves as participants in it. After all, there is no law that mandates that the presidential candidates should debate. However, ever since the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, it has become a hallmark of the presidential race. Presumably, the function of these debates is to give us greater clarity on where the candidates stand regarding the most important issues. And the debates do have the potential to provide such clarity. To this extent, I applaud them. However, in the process of providing this “clarity,” a few other things happen along the way.

First, they encourage us to accept the topics being debated as “the most important issues.” Rather than calling attention to an example from tonight's debate, let me anticipate an omission that I expect to see in the near future. In the foreign policy debate, I doubt that the use of torture methods to extract information from enemies of our nation will be addressed by either of the candidates. If I am right (and I hope that I am not), then opponents of torture will be drowned out by those "more important issues" that receive national televised attention. This is a problem.

Second, this ritual gives us permission to wait until the debates to really start paying attention to what’s at stake politically. If we want to be viewed as “informed citizens” (and most of us who watched the debate do), then all we have to do is watch a few hours of T.V. to feel like we’ve done our part before voting. Now, this desire to be seen as informed can have positive effects. If we have already done some research and we pay critical attention to what’s being said, the debates can assist us in sorting things out, which is a good thing. For example, I thought that the exchange between Obama and Romney on health care cut through a lot of the sound bites and clarified where each candidate really stood on that issue. However, on the other hand, we may find ourselves paying more attention to the competitive element of the debate. In fact, part of our desire to be seen as informed viewers includes a desire to give our opinion about who won. For example, we may focus on whether the candidates were too aggressive or too passive with the moderator, how clever their catch-phrases and comments were, whether they accomplished what they needed to accomplish in a strategic sense, etc. (I will be the first to admit, I am very guilty about doing this!) Negatively, this distracts us from the issues and shapes us into personality-oriented voters. To suggest that “Candidate X won the debate” is to suggest that they are a better candidate. That is a bit troubling.

Third and finally, the most troubling issue for me is the way watching these debates and discussing “who won” shapes our own views about what winning and success look like. If you think, “Romney was successful because he was aggressive and didn't let the moderator push him around,” then this will train you to think that being a patient listener will set up you for failure in this world. Instead, you will find yourself being more aggressive in the world. On the other hand, if you think, “Obama made Romney look pathetic by smiling at him when he kept interrupting everyone,” then you may be inclined to think, “The best way to deal with obnoxious people is to smile or laugh condescendingly.” You will be more inclined to adopt a haughty attitude, which is also troubling.

All in all, I’m not suggesting that watching the debates is a bad thing. In fact, I would encourage it for people who are trying to sort through the sound bites on specific issues. However, we also need to think about how watching these affect us as viewers. We cannot accept the questions that are asked and the points that receive attention in the media to define what "the most important topics" are. Moreover, I would highly recommend NOT discussing who won and/or lost the debate, because this trains us to engage those who disagree with us as opponents to be defeated rather than friends to be taken seriously. And that is an ethical problem.


::athada:: said...

To say nothing about our attention span. Listening for a full two hours. That is a feat few of us are capable of anymore. The live YouTube broadcast included constant Twitter updates on people's perspectives, even while candidates were trying to talk fine points.

Me? Guilty. I joined in on my first real real-time, rapid-fire tweeting, some of which included Big Bird. :/

Mark Scandrett said...

Good thoughts, Brian. I sat & prayed for an hour this morning in front of an abortion clinic that does late-term abortions. I thought about last night's debate & all the discussion about the economy, and I wondered how we (especially those who are Christians) can buy into the lie that the economy is the big issue. While I do believe there are some moral implications to the government's fiscal policies, somehow they don't seem as important to me as the lives of babies.