The White House is seen in Washington. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Bob Brehl: Devil is in the details for civil discourse

By 
  • July 23, 2019

At a recent barbeque, I was telling a long-time friend about a Colombian bishop who planned to exorcise his crime-ridden city of demons by dropping holy water from a helicopter.

This story intrigued me and the telling of it, surprisingly, led to one of the most civil discussions I’ve had about Donald Trump, populism and polarization. No raised voices or demeaning insults were exchanged. More on that in a moment, but first some background about Bishop Rubén Darío Jaramillo Montoya.

The young bishop couldn’t secure a helicopter so he drove around the poorest and nastiest parts of the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura in mid-July atop a fire truck dispensing holy water on the crowds.

“Blood has run through the streets,” said Montoya.

According to news wires, Montoya blames rival gangs fighting to control the illegal drug trade in Buenaventura for a spike in murders, rapes, kidnappings and disappearances. Police and the courts are working to reduce the mayhem, but according to the bishop its citizens “can’t wait” and must support each other however they can. 

“The suffering of one is the suffering of all. We’re not afraid,” the bishop said.

My friend commented that Montoya’s exorcism spectacle will likely have zero impact on the drug lords, but it can’t hurt. To which I said, “Imagine if it does work in Buenaventura? I think he should go to Washington and pour holy water on the White House.”

He chuckled. He’s often told me he doesn’t like Trump as a man, but thinks he’s been a good president. That seems oxymoronic to me and I’ve told him so. He then reminds me of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

He proved this ability to function as our discussion progressed. He asked me if I’d heard of Barronelle Stutzman? I admitted I’d not.

She is a florist near Seattle who declined on religious grounds to do the flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding. The person getting married — a long-time client of Stutzman’s — complained and the State of Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the florist.

My friend’s brother-in-law, a printer, got into a lot of heat with the Ontario Human Rights Commission years ago over declining similar work on religious grounds. He came close to losing his business, despite proposing several other reputable printers who would gladly do the work.

Then my friend mentioned The Little Sisters of the Poor. The sisters objected to the contraception mandate in Obamacare, arguing the government was compelling them to violate their religious beliefs. 

The case remains before the Supreme Court.

He cited several other cases which he insists show Western society “lurching to the left” over the past two decades or more. “This leftist agenda is driving us down the path to a brave new world that scares the hell out of me,” he said. 

“And the ‘silent majority’ blithely carries on like the proverbial boiling frog.”

With that, he pointed to Trump as the pendulum swinging in reaction to the sacrifice of individual rights to collective political correctness and the leftist agenda. “You have to take the bad with the good,” he said.

He didn’t need to remind me of similar things happening in Canada. Things like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declaration that all candidates wishing to represent the Liberal Party must support the party’s pro-choice position, regardless if they are pro-life on religious grounds or any other grounds.

Anyway, it was the first time someone took the time to methodically and articulately explain to me why they support Trump — complete with his many warts — without the need to shout and harangue. And it came about because a progressive bishop in South America tried something new to fight crime and aid the poor and victims of violence.

But it makes me wonder if the toothpaste can ever be put back in the tube and if society can explore civil discussions and put aside the hard right and left divisions? Sociologists and psychologists place much of the blame for the schism on social media.

It’s being called “motivated reasoning,” an unconscious, biased way of processing information that can trap even the smartest people into believing falsehoods that support their ideological and partisan dispositions. Social media never gives the whole picture and often triggers this motivated reasoning.

But my friend has shown that it does not necessarily have to be that way and that the toothpaste can be put back in the tube if we broaden our outlook, obtain information beyond social media and partake in civil discourse. 

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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