The Kavanaugh confirmation and the death of public discourse
October 18, 2018
Throughout the confirmation process of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it was unclear whether he would ultimately be confirmed. But one thing was certain throughout that process and remains certain: Politics is where public discourse goes to die.
What I mean is that the way our society conducts public debates on contentious issues fails two fundamental criteria: charity and truth.
Judge Kavanaugh has been accused of damning conduct. If true, the implications are problematic for his credibility as a Supreme Court justice. If false, Judge Kavanaugh will have been slandered in a way that practically demolishes his reputation and character.
THE GOTCHA QUESTION
Truth or falsity aside, the special hearing to discuss Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Judge Kavanaugh provided an example of how “the gotcha question” diminishes the dignity of searching for the truth.
The best – or, rather, worst – example of “the gotcha question” mentality was the line of questioning by Sen. Corey Booker. The beginning of Sen. Booker’s questioning insisted that Judge Kavanaugh answer only in a “yes” or “no” fashion, disallowing any explanation or context. Such questions are typically loaded and meant to pin the respondent in the corner, usually unfairly.
Contrast such an approach with Rachel Miller, the sex crimes prosecutor hired to interrogate both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. While certainly many more questions could have been asked (and are being asked), Miller diligently asked questions that laid the foundation for testing the honesty and credibility of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. Her questions were intended to probe potential ambiguous or confusing statements. Miller sought to ask fair and balanced questions, to shed light on the truth of the matter, in a cool, calm and collected manner. She sought to leave no stone unturned, to ensure that she was collecting as much information as possible, for the sake of reaching the best conclusion attainable.
TALKING PAST EACH OTHER
Immigration policy debates elicit passion. Immigration policy discussions also tend to create situations where “listening in order to understand” the other is a rare commodity. On the one hand, some advocates argue that the nation’s safety must be protected through adequate border protection measures. On the other hand, other advocates argue that we are a nation of immigrants and must offer compassion to the needs of the migrant. Both sets of advocates are, undoubtedly, making principled claims worthy of consideration, and ones that are rooted in the Catholic social teaching tradition.
But what happens is the competing advocates tend to talk past each other. They fail to see that each person is making an argument that, while related to the issue at hand, comes at the issue from a different angle. To this extent, neither party is on common ground with the other. Rather than listening to understand the other person – and then assessing how their claim relates to my own claim which can lead to a deeper discussion about the issue – there is frustration. The frustration results in thinking that the other person is incapable of seeing what is truly at issue.
CHARITY AND TRUTH
Unfortunately, there are many other examples that could be identified from our political debates. Examples that demonstrate how far charity and truth are removed from our public discourse.
But charity and truth go hand in hand. We are not permitted a lower standard. We cannot dismiss one in favor of the other. We cannot simply be kind without seeking truth, and we cannot seek the truth without any regard for how we treat our neighbor.
While public discourse may seem to be on the throes of death – or already dead – the beauty is that we have a faith whose essential message is one of resurrection. There is nothing that Christ cannot redeem and there is nothing that Christ does not want to redeem. And this includes the way that we – as a society – debate our political issues.
Let us pray that we become a nation rooted in charity and truth, and the saving message of Jesus Christ.
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.