Thursday, February 02, 2006

Losing Our Shades of Gray

What makes America great?

Is it our democracy? Our freedoms? Our diversity? Yes, all of those are part of the whole, but is there just one key characteristic you could name that in itself sets America above all other nations? I would say the answer is yes.

And I'd call it Freedom of Reason.

Yes, we have many freedoms, but so do other nations. But there has always been one unwritten, yet inherent, freedom that is the basis for all of our other freedoms - the freedom of reason. This means at its core that we are free to use our beliefs, intellect, and diverse philosophies to debate and discuss and compromise and coexist.

In the color-world, freedom of reason is best represented by shades of gray. It's not full-color because it's not always joyous and bright and colorful. It can be dreary and drab and serious, but it can show variation and smooth gradients just the same as color. And when compared to a monochromatic image, it is as beautiful a leap forward as any color image you could imagine.

But we are losing our shades of gray.

The death of any great society has been a regression into a monochromatic state where everything is black and white. Reason no longer matters, only adhesion to rule without allowance for rationale or circumstance. We seem to be headed there, and it is a frightening journey.

When did this start? Is it new?

No there's nothing truly new here, and there's no starting point because we have fluctuated back and forth through various shades of gray throughout our history. It's the degree of fluctuation that occasionally sticks its ugly head out.

Usually, when this happens, there is an auto-correction. Our society and culture react and bring the pendulum back to its rightful center location. One glaring example of this is the era of McCarthyism. We jeopardized our freedom of reason by making an issue black and white. You either publicly denounced communism or you were a traitor. There was no middle ground. No discussion, No reason. But eventually, the pendulum swung back.

But not today. America is becoming a more and more monochromatic society.

It started with our politically correct, and intelligence lacking, crusade of the 1990's: "zero-tolerance". Zero-tolerance has become the catch phrase and the excuse for every ill-conceived, ill-implemented, logic-less policy implemented in the last 20 years. Zero-tolerance means zero thinking and zero intelligence.

In the land of the world's best and most revered legal system, where circumstance is *the* critical and overriding piece of evidence, we have somehow bought into the unreasoning and ludicrous idea that not allowing circumstance is an acceptable policy. Somehow we believe that suspending a second grader for pointing a potato chip at another student and saying "Bang" is the right thing to do because we have a zero-tolerance policy with regard to guns. Or suspending a kindergartener for kissing another because of our zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment. Or suspending a high school student because there was a butter knife found in the bed of his truck in the school parking lot - because it fell out of his mother's catering box. These are not the stories of a reasoning society.

But the pendulum has not swung back. Instead we see zero-tolerance in every walk of life triumphing over reason on a growing basis. We see eighty year old women with nail clippers or knitting needles who can't get on airplanes. We see people not being able to oppose the war in Iraq without being painted as traitors. We see the argument over abortion becoming free abortions for all versus no abortions for any reason. We see three strikes and your out, regardless of the degree of your crime. We see mandatory life imprisonment for drug crimes. In everything related to foreign policy we're told you're either for us or against us. And children are still being suspended for saying "Bang" in school.

It's all very black and white. We're losing our gray.

History is full of lessons about societies that lost their gray - one of the most notorious being the disgrace of Germany.

But history also shows us that societies can embrace gray in profound ways. The ultimate document portraying an understanding of shades of gray has to be the articles of the Geneva Convention. Think hard - what is the largest omission in the Geneva Convention? It is the condemnation of the act of war itself. The convention instead accepts that war between nations is inevitable and yet compromises that while death and killing are tools and outcomes of war, the rules of engagement, and treatment of those in its pursuit, should still conform to some standards of humanity. Which one could argue are absent from the sheer act of war.

As our country slips ever more into furthering polarization, and our political system and legislative mandates begin to narrow themselves into black and white definitions and choices, we as a people must decide whether or not we want our shades of gray back.

Or whether we want to have zero-tolerance for reason. At which point America will no longer be the land of the free.



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