When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.
— Samuel Johnson
Scanning my news feed this morning, the first thing that caught my eye was a piece of commentary from Gerald F. Seib, the Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. Under the headline “Civil Discourse in Decline: Where Does It End?” Seib bemoaned the “shift away from politeness, decorum, and respect” in American society, opining that “anybody who isn’t troubled” by our increasing inability to interact with people with whom we disagree “isn’t really paying attention.”
Seib mentioned a number of recent phenomena that are symptomatic of the breakdown in our discourse, including the physical assault of a news reporter by a Republican candidate for Congress and a Democratic state party chairman’s obscenity-laced rant at a public meeting against “both [President Donald Trump] and dissidents in his own party.”
Observing that “harsh has become the new norm,” he readily laid a good deal of responsibility at Trump’s feet, going back to a Republican primary campaign in which he derided opponents as “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” continuing through his campaign last fall against “Crooked Hillary,” and encapsulated in his ongoing attacks on the news media.
But, Seib insisted, Democrats “have become just as nasty.” He noted that the new national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, has “already earned notoriety for his use of profanity at rallies,” and that the intensity of “anti-Trump heckling” at some rallies has made it virtually impossible for Perez to make himself heard above the din.
Now, there may be some of my good liberal friends who have stopped reading this already, based purely on my willingness to quote The Wall Street Journal (many of the same ones, perhaps, who still get angry when I blame Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump on Hillary Clinton, rather than on Trump, his Russian friends, or the willful ignorance of millions of my fellow Americans). Certainly, I’ll admit readily that the WSJ is rarely, if ever, my first stop when looking for opinions and perspectives that reinforce my own — and I’ll also offer the disclaimer that there are several points of Seib’s with which I take some issue.
But, don’t you see, that is part and parcel of the very point at which I’m driving here. It was the great poet Robert Frost who said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence,” and that’s a fact that hasn’t changed in the more than half-century since Frost died. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe that the Trump Administration presents a clear and present danger to what remains of American democracy, or that the consequences of the programs and policies it — with the collusion of most of the Republican Party — is attempting to enact will be harmful to most Americans and the country at large. What it does mean is that, if I truly care about this country and my fellow Americans — if I truly believe in such principles as freedom of speech, the value of a free press, and the right of people of good will to disagree with one another without resort to reprisal — then it is incumbent upon me, as an individual, to spend more time looking for areas of commonality than picking at areas of difference. I’m a person of strong opinions, and with confidence in my own thinking and beliefs; but I long ago gave up the idea that I’m right about everything, let alone that I know all there is to know about anything.
With that in mind, if I can’t find wisdom and truth in the opinions of those with whom I am in general disagreement — if I cannot, for God’s sake, even talk to those with whom I disagree — then how in the world can I dare to claim that I’m as smart as I like to think I am? Besides, getting back for a moment to Mr. Seib, I find no cause for argument with his primary observation concerning the decline of discourse in our society, particularly as it relates to politics and government.
The consequences of this trend are real, and visible every day in Washington and state capitals, he wrote. Lawmakers who are either engaged in or intimidated by the shout-fest that has become political debate find it harder to talk with each other, which means it’s harder to find consensus or even compromise.
Whether the intense polarization that stands in the way of progress in Washington is the cause or the effect of this decline in civilized debate is almost beside the point. The dysfunction it produces in governance is the result either way.
And it’s not just “Washington and state capitals,” though our very own state government in Alabama — where, over roughly the past year, the heads of all three branches have resigned from or been forced to vacate their offices — is one of the nation’s great monuments to the “dysfunction” Seib highlighted. Right here in our very own city of Birmingham, we are little more than two months away from an election in which the mayoralty, nine seats on the city council, and nine seats on the board of education are all up for grabs, and the great question is not whether some substantial magnitude of housecleaning is needed — almost everyone I talk to, all over the city, agrees that it is — but whether anyone actually will show up to vote.
Well, if that’s not dysfunction, I don’t know what is. There are serious issues facing our city, legitimate questions to be asked of, and answered by, both our current elected officials and those who are vying to replace them. And yet, there are vast swaths of citizens who either seem not to know that an election is coming up, or essentially make it clear that they do not care (whether they do not care because they don’t make the connection between city government and their everyday lives — let alone those of their fellow citizens — or because they have simply given up on the idea that their vote one way or the other makes a difference, largely depending on which part of town they live in).
All of which, at least for purposes of this particular column, leaves us to ponder the causes of the dysfunction. Certainly, as it relates to our municipal politics, it has a good deal to do with the local media landscape — the absence of a daily newspaper, the proliferation of the notion that people don’t really want to hear about politics and government, and that those who do want it in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks.
And maybe that’s true. If it is, God help us, and we probably deserve whatever we wind up getting.
As for the broader picture, relative to the decline in our national discourse, there’s nothing revelatory in my pointing out that the so-called 24-hour “news” cycle barely skims the surface of important events and useful information, let alone analysis that amounts to anything much more than so much partisan commercializing. Beyond that, the yawning gaps between the brief moments of enlightenment are filled with looping streams of celebrity gossip, celebrity trials, celebrities giving awards to other celebrities, celebrity marriages, births, and deaths.
It’s a ceaseless flow, dammed only by the occasional intrusion of “breaking news,” in the form of a school shooting, or a plane crash, or a hurricane approaching landfall. Oh, and sports.
Throw in the demands of our everyday lives in the only country in the world where attention deficiency is a cottage industry, and finding time to brood and ruminate over the things that truly matter to our ability to make a living, provide for ourselves and our families, and find personal fulfillment begins to take on the aspect of high luxury. For many, if not most, people, it’s getting more and more difficult to find time to care about the political process, or whether or not our government actually works anymore, let alone to take an active part in it.
That, to me, is the real tragedy of the dysfunction Seib wrote about. As a nation, we no longer seem to have the time or inclination to look beneath the surface of things, to go deep on a given topic. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always seen the intrinsic value in chewing things over, in making historical background and the acknowledgement of divergent perspectives integral to my examination and understanding of any given issue or circumstance. That, to me, is the most basic element of constructive communication.
By contrast, our growing cultural addiction to brevity, our demand for instant informational gratification and rote resolution of conflict, actively prevent real conversation, interaction, and engagement on both the personal and societal levels. Constructive outcomes are made exponentially more difficult, if not precluded altogether.
Increasingly, we tend to talk past each other, to hear the other person only if they agree with us. In doing so, we miss countless opportunities for finding the common ground on which to stake a collective claim on the present, or a collective hope for the future. In such a culture, the notion of what constitutes the greater good becomes increasingly difficult to find.
The opportunity to speak one’s mind is a precious thing. But with it come implicit responsibilities, including those of choosing topics and words wisely, respecting the intelligence and perspectives — and, not least, the humanity — of others, not allowing opinion to obscure fact, and being unafraid to confront unpleasant truths.
If we can’t live up to these responsibilities, one day — before we know it, and perhaps sooner than most any of us would like to think — the opportunity, and the blessing, of civil discourse will be ours no more.