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On Contradictions


Our nation is faced with certain evils. Many of them, we bring upon ourselves. We allow our lives to be guided by a set of contradictions and when those contradictions play out on a globally televised scale, we huff and puff and very rarely blow the house down. How are we to evolve if we don’t recognize these contradictions before they come to, as a famous author may say, a tipping point?

Whether it’s determining who gets to vote or to marry whomever we want or even who gets to put themselves in the line of danger to preserve the very freedoms we hold dear, we find ourselves continually struggling to land on the right side of history. We can only hope that we will eventually get it right, that we will fix these contradictions.

Previous generations have had their ‘moral question’ moment, and that in itself tells you something about this grand experiment we call ‘democracy.’ From slavery to women’s suffrage, our collective body has been slow to move. While this generation’s dominant moral question – gay rights – has made incremental steps forward, we inherited previous generations’ indignation and confusion over another long-standing moral issue: capital punishment. Last night’s execution of Troy Davis, in an idealized version of democracy, would have the people rise up and let their voices be heard; an eye-for-an-eye is not just: we have no right to play God.

Capital punishment has plagued our nation since its inception, creating one of the most significant contradictions. On one hand, we preach the sanctity of life and on the other, we deny the right to live for those accused, tried and convicted of all sorts of crimes. We are inconsistent in who we put to death and inconsistent on how we reach that ultimate decision. We are inconsistent in how we determine doubt – if the unofficial motto of the American judicial system is “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved (Benjamin Franklin),” how do we justify killing someone when there is even a shred of doubt? How do we justify ending a life when our nation’s ideals are based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How do we justify murdering in the name of justice, when justice is supposed to be blind?

We live in an era where we, the people, have the ability to stand up and make our voices heard. Unfortunately, we too often fail to perform our most basic civic duties: vote and serve on a jury. Whether it’s apathy or ambivalence, we consistently fail to perform those duties needed for our society to be less inconsistent.

Back when 55 delegates from 12 states gathered to put quill to paper to write our Constitution (Rhode Island sat it out), they did it in secrecy. Many believed the population was not smart enough to handle the debate happening in what is now known as Independence Hall in Philadelphia. As George Mason wrote, secrecy was “a necessary precaution to prevent misrepresentations or mistakes; there being a material difference between the appearance of a subject in its first crude and undigested shape, and after it shall have been properly matured and arranged.”  While it may be argued our population is still not smart enough to have important debates of how to move the country in a particular direction (health care, anyone?), we have the ability to call, email, tweet our elected representatives. We have the power to change, if we want it. All we need to do is vote. Such a simple, yet elegant solution.

We live in a society where our values are often at odds with themselves and contradictions in how we approach these moral – if not jurisprudence – issues. We sat by and waited and watched as our neighbors sold other humans, as our wives and sisters and daughters were not given a voice, until the tide of history changed and we realized these are wrongs that we need to right. But with last night’s execution, we are reminded we have a long way to go to fix the inequities inherent in our system.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.

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