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Blunt Political Rhetoric Entertains But Does it Help?

As our current political theater continues its descent into the realm of the absurd, questions naturally arise about the health and well-being of that dimension of our collective life.

Key players in a process that is designed to identify those best capable to provide leadership for our country have given in to the pressure of doing whatever might create a “bump” in a poll standing.

Constant exposure to their gamesmanship might cause us to wonder if we are watching some kind of bizarre caricature of our political system, rather than its actual process.

Beyond that particular puzzlement, which many seem to share, I have wondered if what we see may be a consequence of a longer-term evolution in our public consciousness toward a fascination with the spectacular and the strange, causing us to be less discerning about what is significant and what is not.

In the place of substantive deliberation on issues that need careful attention, we seem to be treated with an abundance of what we might call “politi-tainment” – where public figures vie for our attention and our affirmation with increasingly blunt and shocking statements.

Sound bites and applause lines give way to verbal outbursts designed to get attention and produce a “wow factor” that will translate into poll standings. Interesting and fascinating but also a bit troubling.

There is certainly nothing wrong with entertainment. We all benefit from it in many forms.

It is a kind of refreshment (“sabbatic moments” perhaps) from the seriousness that occupies much of our daily life and work.

A concert, a ball game, a movie, an excursion to some setting of nature’s beauty, a video game – any and all of these and many others are part of a healthy pattern.

We might wonder, though, if our enjoyment of entertainment might lead to the tendency to “entertain-ize” other arenas of life, such as education (“take this course, it’s really fun”), worship (“they have a really cool band at that church”), relationships (“being with him just isn’t fun anymore”).

Extreme forms of this tendency appear from time to time in the entertainment industry as performers attempt to outdo each other in behavior and productions that “push the envelope” over the edge.

A quick Google search for examples discovered reports of episodes I’m glad I missed the first time around.

When the “entertainment factor” has a controlling influence on what we do as teachers, preachers, parents, friends, citizens and voters, we sub-humanize ourselves in subservience to a pattern of appetites that do not lead to health and well-being for us as individuals or as communities.

There is both a cyclical and a linear effect of this entertain-izing of our common life.

Each generation has its practitioners – the preaching antics of a Billy Sunday and the clever rhetoric of politicians in generations past (“I’m more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the age of rocks”) – remind us that this is nothing new.

The tendency of each new era to take the limits of the entertainment threshold a bit nearer the edge reminds us how the process evolves over time to new levels.

When politi-tainment takes over our political process, we get the kind of public behavior that few would expect in the “normal” venues of our collective life.

This is hardly an expression of the best of who we are, and we might wonder why we reward it with so much attention and pretense regarding its significance.

When this happens, the polls that set out to reflect the public’s thinking on various matters have a way of becoming the directors of the public’s thinking on those matters.

Issues that require the best of our collective wisdom receive instead only those perspectives that polls have shown to generate the best applause lines.

Entertainment is a needed and necessary reminder of the lighter side of our human journey – without it in some form we sink into the despair of too much seriousness.

But when the tail of entertainment begins to wag the dog of our collective capacity for wisdom, we might wonder if another kind of despair is a warning sign that we always stand close to the edge of losing our capacity to make sound judgments, especially in the area of choosing leaders.

Theologically, this danger may be walking down Eden’s path of failing to maintain our role as creatures in covenant with a Creator and with each other, and in stewardship of a creation, all because of low hanging fruit that is pleasing to the appetite and fascinating to see (Genesis 3:6).

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.