A Dangerous Rhetoric

03/29/2015 01:27 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

"Rhetoric" is a term that many of us collectively harness when we smack into a political wall. Though I've studied this word enough to understand that phrase to be a simplistic reduction, I get why we use it this way. Rhetoric is, at its simplest, a river. It's the systematic shell that holds whatever we put into it and takes shape from collective pressure. So whether we get a waterfall or a still lake speaks more to the water than the river itself.

What I'm saying is, it's not the shell of a structure that offers a disingenuous, calculating voice in our political sphere that exercises forced logic. People do that.

Likewise, bills becoming laws isn't an inherently evil system. And acknowledging that the collision of rhetoric and laws as the space of public disruption is certainly healthy for a progressive society. It isn't about language systems, but how we use words. It isn't a signature on a bill, but what we're buying into.

And if you can't extract the individual drops of water from a river and still understand what the river looks like, then we also can't talk about a single discriminatory law without understanding our cultural vantage point. We might not have all held the pen as Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the "religious freedom act" into law, but we are all in the room.

I'm not going to talk about nihilistic business practices at play here that are going to seriously hurt the state. Nor the historical connection to other discriminatory laws hiding under the pretext of group protection, like the wave of immigration-focused voting policies purporting to protect against "voter fraud." There are, obviously, many examples to pool from. But I think what's more important is how we can break this conversation, or rhetorical cycle.

Our cultural vantage point above this dam that's about to break is the bifurcation of "freedom of conscience" as somehow at odds with our role as public citizens. Personal and collective conscience are not the same thing, but we've increasingly expected them to be. That's like asking one drop of water to tell the river where to go. Or one business owner to decide for thousands of people where they are and are not allowed to shop. We've siloed personal conscience so now it solely applies to anyone with a deeply held religious belief. That's not good for any of us -- including those people with deeply held religious beliefs.

What good have we done when we talk about "freedom of conscience" as if it's just in reference to our desire to experience everything we ever think and believe played out on a public stage? I'm not a psychiatrist, but that's a textbook definition of narcissism. Maybe it's time we all get our heads checked. Or maybe, more accurately, it's time to get our words in check.

In psychics, there's a law that says you can solve for all variables, but not at the same time. So, too, can people believe all things both in and out of their homes, but not necessarily at the same time.

We should always hope that the basic semblance of truth is situationally self-evident, whether it's in Indiana or Iran. But maybe, like rhetoric and laws, that's not enough. Let's not hope that the "right" answer is carried victorious without a current. We have to identify what motions we're making to signal to some transparent mechanism that we are indeed flowing the right way.