We need to have a national debate. It’s a phrase that arises too liberally anytime someone of prominence makes a faux pas. Or when a particular group with an agenda hopes to raise awareness about their pet issue. Regardless of the origin of a national debate, or national discussion, it fails to address crucial problems. Instead, national debate is one among several buzzwords we use to either not take ownership of an issue, or to push an agenda.
For instance, a pundit will call for a national debate because they don’t want to put their reputation on the line. In a sense, it’s a hedge against possibly making a delicate conversation worse and potentially falling out of public favor. On the other hand, a group pushing an agenda hopes to take partial ownership, in that a national conversation will result in them earning more support from public funds or private charity.
But do we really need a national debate if someone in a public position says or does something stupid? Or rather, does the person in question just need to learn some morals? For example, the aftermath of the Anthony Weiner situation has raised various discussions of why people in positions of power behave the way they do. NPR ran a story that showed people of power – men or women – are more likely to have affairs the more powerful they feel. They even threw in a Catherine the Great reference about her rampant abuse of power. Conversely, The New York Times argued that women don’t abuse power the same way.
None of that is necessary, and only fuels the fire about some mythical national conversation that will never materialize.
Of course, national debates are one of many empty phrases we use to promote ideas without actions. Here is another: “I take full responsibility….” This phrase, while a recognition of guilt, fails to gain my pardon from an act. One might ask who would be responsible for a governor or senator’s affair – as if it was a staffer’s idea to have a child with a housemaid without telling one’s wife. Nice try.
What does taking responsibility really mean? Clearly if a politician was responsible, their scandal would never have occurred. The rhetoric of taking responsibility sits far away from the action of responsibility. Be cautious of anyone who claims to take responsibility because they are hollow men.
Absolutes are dangerous terms. How often do we hear the following type of rhetoric from political leaders or candidates: now is the time for action; never before have we; we face a critical juncture in our history.
People are remarkably dynamic and progressive beings. Our evolution and growth shadows our ability to reflect on previous watershed moments, thus we perceive everything as a watershed moment. Additionally, because we live in the present, we naturally think whatever is happening now is the greatest crisis we have ever faced.
We must guard ourselves against such statements. We all want to be the greatest generation; we want to be the brave Achaeans that sailed off to Troy. Our leaders recognize and play into it by declaring how important their agenda is to the preservation and strength of their party or nation.
Often times, it is not a watershed moment, we are not at a critical juncture, and we must take responsibility for that by entering into a national conversation about it.