Stacy Bettison

Stacy L. Bettison is a communications strategist and owner of Bettison Consulting LLC. Stacy focuses on crisis communications, reputation management and media relations. She is also a licensed attorney and has practiced law in both Chicago and Minneapolis.

Posts about Politics

The First Amendment: The Blood in Our Veins

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: September 27, 2012 - 8:59 AM

Like many, I’ve been thinking a lot about our First Amendment lately. As protest and violence in the Muslim world has occurred in response to the vulgar Internet video satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, and as we’ve seen President Obama simultaneously defending our free speech rights and denouncing the video, I’ve pondered this:

 
What makes the First Amendment so challenging for some to understand?  How can we better explain why the First Amendment is so important to Americans?
 
History usually provides some good insight into why things are the way they are today. 
 
I chose to consult than A History of the American Constitution, by legal scholars Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry. I read this book as a student of both professors when they taught at the University of Minnesota Law School. The chapter on the Bill of Rights spoke to my lingering question:
 
  • Free speech and free exercise of religion were among several rights that the colonial Americans cherished most from British heritage.
  • These rights were viewed as inalienable; fundamental; self-evident; natural; inherent; “true, ancient and indubitable rights and liberties.” In essence, if you were human, you possessed these rights.
  • Because they were inherent, they didn’t need to be written to be protected.  If they were written, the writings were viewed as “declarations” - not “enactments.”
  •  As such, government lacked the power to limit certain of these rights.
  • There was significant debate at the Constitutional Convention as to whether a bill of rights was even necessary. For instance, there was objection to including a declaration as to the freedom of the press, because the power of Congress did not extend to the press.  
  • James Madison, then elected to the House of Representatives, met considerable resistance from fellow Congressmen to even discuss the issue of amendments to the Constitution. Ultimately, however, he presented the amendments, with this preface: 
It will be a desirable thing to extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community, any apprehensions that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled. . . .
  • Weeks of debate over necessity, substance, and working ensued.  The final result was the version that is now our First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The establishment, free exercise and free speech clauses form a trifecta of freedom. 
 
We get to decide whether we worship at all (per the establishment clause), and if so, who we worship, where we worship, when we worship and how we worship (free exercise). We get to choose how we express our religion and honor our faith (free speech). Walk down any street in America, and you’ll see expressions of religion worn on our bodies, whether it be a cross pendant or a burqa. Walk into any home, and you may see a crucifix, the Star of David or nothing at all.
 
A fundamental American right is the ability to express our thoughts about religion. We get to disagree, criticize and even ridicule. Offensive? Yes. Blasphemous? Yes. Hurtful? You bet. It’s this part that is so difficult for other nations, and often even our own, to understand—why allow people to defile and blaspheme something that others hold dear?
 
We tolerate that which offends because we know, as did our Founding Fathers, that unleashing the natural liberty of free speech and religion is far more powerful and influential than even the most bigoted and irreverent video. Allowing humanity the full expression of thought and conscience ultimately enables humans to flourish, even when some of that expression is so utterly contrary to what we believe is right and good.
 
The First Amendment is one of the foundations of our American heritage and society. Without it, our other rights—and even our American culture—would suffer and stagnate. Those suffering under more repressive governments have difficulty appreciating that which we have long known to be fundamental: that the right of fools to speak freely actually gives our country and our people strength. Free speech is worth fighting for and worth defending, even when it’s been used to inflict harm.
 
Rather than violently oppressing the rights of others to speak offensively, Americans have bled and died in the defense of this right. We believe, as our Founding Fathers believed, that these rights of expression are as natural to our humanity as the blood in our veins. 
 
Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison

 

Climate change skeptic’s about-face: conviction and ego left behind

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: August 7, 2012 - 8:23 AM
Richard Muller, professor of physics at University of California Berkeley, recently declared himself a “converted skeptic” on the matter of climate change. This news caused me to reflect on what it takes to undertake a public about-face as Professor Muller recently did.  
 
Muller had been a vocal critic of the scientific research suggesting the Earth is warming and that it is human-caused. His announcement last week that his own research shows global warming is the result of carbon emissions required courage to leave conviction and ego behind.
 
Conviction must give way to flexibility. The ability to blaze intellectual trails requires ample mental space. To understand the world better, we must set aside ideological convictions to consider new information, especially evidence that directly contradicts those beliefs.
 
“The Earth is flat” is one of many ideas in history that proved wrong—a development made possible when leading minds allowed conviction to give way to scientific research and observation.
 
Muller was not a zealot on the matter of climate change. Rather, his previous stance on global warming arose from his misgivings about the previous research supporting the occurrence of human-caused global warming.
 
Yet, he didn’t let his convictions that the science was flawed limit his thinking on the issue. In fact, he did the opposite: he conducted his own research focused on the flaws he spotted in existing climate change models, sought additional information, and tested his own models. 
 
His skepticism caused him to inquire further and dig deeper: “I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered” writes Muller. 
 
Flexibility allows principled, set-in-stone thinking to be aside so innovative thinking can then flourish. It is the essence of intellectual curiosity and a requirement for advancing our understanding of the world.
 
To “see the light” requires humility. Whether through physics, congressional hearings or focus groups, the study of new information must also be done with a degree of humility. Long-held beliefs may be proven wrong if we are open-minded enough to let them.
 
The well-known story of Saul on the road to Damascus, used frequently to describe this phenomenon in secular contexts, underscores the point. “Armed with full powers and a commission from the chief priests” with the intention to bring back Christians from Damascus to Jerusalem for punishment, Saul came to “see the light.” Saul was humbled, and thereafter became one of the most significant early Christian leaders as Paul the Apostle. 
 
Whether in the New York Times or in the board room, a changed position will nearly always attract a vocal cast of critics making charges of flip-flopping, indecisiveness and even deception. The rotten tomatoes come with the job, but can be deflected with clear, concise communications as to the basis for the change. 
 
New information evolves our thinking, and evolved thinking means we change our minds.    
 
Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison

Cussing from the stump: lob a bomb or keep it clean?

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: July 12, 2012 - 7:56 AM
The recent Associated Press story covering a rash of obscenities uttered by East Coast politicians caught my attention because the swearing was deliberate and spoken in public, G-rated settings.
 
Our culture is certainly familiar with (and usually forgiving of) the slip-of-the-tongue, heat-of-the-moment swearing. Indeed, many (if not most) people swear. Some more than others, some more often they’d like to admit, and some only in the most extreme circumstances. Linguists note the human tendency to swear has been around as long as any we’ve had voice boxes -- vulgarities are depicted in writings going back 5,000 years and oral traditions likely included similar indecencies.  With media reporting in Twitter time, however, we are likely to see more reports of these accidental and spontaneous utterances by politicians.
 
Politicos cussing with malice aforethought, however, presents a very different issue: will our culture tolerate the intentional use of vulgar language by politicians in civic discourse? What adequately justifies, if anything does, profane speech in a civic context—an overall coarsening of popular culture from reality-TV and social media? A desire to appear as and connect with the “average Joe?”
 
More reasons than not to keep it clean. While profanities may elicit a positive, rah-rah response from some, far more reasons exist against lobbing obscenities at G-rated crowds.
 
1.  We expect more and better from public figures. While few can deny having uttered an occasional expletive, the electorate holds public officials and politicians to higher standards. They are expected to behave, speak well, be proper, act morally and ethically, do good, and above all, represent the best for the people. Swearing in public fulfills none of these expectations.
 
2.  There are other words and ways to achieve the communications objective. If the communications objective is to express an idea with particular flair, emphasis or emotion, the English language contains approximately 750,000 words to choose from. Here presents an opportunity to be selective with the vast choices and engage the audience with smart, thoughtful words.
 
If the objective is to appear authentic and to develop a strong connection with the audience, plain, simple English works just fine -- especially when backed with authenticity in motive and spirit. There is no better way to appear authentic than by being authentic.
 
3.  Foul language is not a reputation enhancer. Cussing on the stump is unlikely to engender a more favorable opinion of politicians by the American people. Generally speaking, politicians need to rehabilitate their damaged reputations – not conduct themselves in a manner that causes further degradation. Indeed, polls show that a vast majority of Americans think politicians focus on the wrong thing (swear words, perhaps?) and a majority have little or no confidence in the men and women who seek or hold elected office. Politicians would do well to consider the linguistic tactics that serve to build and strengthen their standing in the communities in which they serve.
 
4.  Non-profane word choices will promote civility towards others. No doubt, politics have never been nastier. As such, there’s never been a better time to start promoting civility towards each other by careful and thoughtful word choices. The civility that is reflected to us by our politicians might just have a positive impact on the civility that the citizenry extends to one another.  
 
Consider civic discourse if the U.K. Parliament House of Commons courtesies and conventions:
 
. . . Members should not be addressed as 'you' but should be referred to as 'the honourable Member for [constituency]', 'my honourable friend' or 'the honourable Member opposite'. Privy Councillors are 'Right Honourable'…..
 
While the British Parliament is not without its own challenges, the labels assigned to colleagues and rivals matter. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may be a gifted public speaker, but his public label of a lawmaker as “one arrogant S.O.B.” leaves room for improvement.
 
I’m not naively suggesting that if politicians followed the U.K. Parliament conventions and courtesies, American politics suddenly would become civil and pleasant. After all, the British Parliament in practice is not a model of civility and decorum, with speakers regularly and openly heckled by their opponents. But the ability to convey acrid criticisms while avoiding unparliamentary language is a point of pride for the Brits—as Winston Churchill famously used the phrase “terminological exactitude” to mean “lie.”
 
The House of Commons convention that encourages responsible free speech exemplifies what is lacking at times in American political discourse:
 
Members should bear in mind Erskine May's dictum that "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of Parliamentary language". It is important that exercise of the privilege of freedom of speech is tempered with responsibility. 
 
Lincoln, Kennedy, and Regan are remembered as great communicators because their words inspired and uplifted the civic discourse and their speech echoes in the American consciousness long after they have gone.
 
Perhaps the Honorable Governor from New Jersey and his cussing brethren may consider how their oratory will be remembered, if at all, and find value in bringing back some good temper and moderation to future public discourse.  
 

Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison 

      

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