At our weekly lectionary Bible study, one of my colleagues observed that people's uninformed opinions seem to have become newsworthy. He said that whenever someone says, "I believe such and such to be true," it is almost impossible to have any rational discussion of the matter. That led to me to observe that in advertising obvious lies are becoming commonplace. One example is a recent health insurance ad which begins with the statement, "We have been talking with everyone on Medicare." Everyone? Certainly not likely. That is an exaggeration of such magnitude that I can have no confidence that any statement in the ad is true, nor any reason to do business with that particular company.
Telling lies and the elevation of one's opinion to the status of absolute truth are only two of the problems that make discussion of important issues in the "public square" so difficult. Another problem is the demonization of those with whom we disagree. Demonization is often packaged with other problems, as in the way President Obama has been demonized by those whose opinions about his birthplace or his religion are not open to factual challenges.
For me entering into any discussion of issues of importance, any issues where there are diverse convictions, requires both clarity about my own convictions and an awareness that I may be wrong. I can contribute little to the discussion if I am unable to be clear about where I stand, but I can get very little out of the discussion if I am unwilling to entertain the possibility that my convictions may in some measure be wrong. If I listen to the other person only in order to find weak points that I may exploit in debate, I miss the possibility of having my own understanding of the issue deepened and, perhaps, my own convictions changed.
I am not optimsic about our chances of having rational, respectful, and fruitful discusssion of difficult issues like same-sex marriage or health insurance reform, but I am not willing to give up hope or to stop talking and listening. While these important conservations have not and will not be easy ones, I think we have no choice but to tackle the important issues with as much honesty and respect and patience as we can muster.