Sunday morning tradition at my house still includes scattering the local newspaper across the family room couch and television browsing that includes skipping through Face the Nation, Meet the Press and even CNN's Reliable Sources. The week following the attempted assassination of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murders of innocent bystanders during a small political rally in her district created a firestorm of rhetoric regarding the state of civil discourse in our country.
As I watched Face the Nation, the talking heads did their best to prod controversy from the Congressional Rep du jour in an attempt to better understand the tragic events. Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a democrat, said, "We need to be leaders by example, and when we do that, then hopefully we're going to be able to push the shock jocks and others outside our process to take a page from our book. And if we have a more productive civil discourse, then we can really live up to President Obama's words and Christina Taylor Green's dreams of her expectations for our democracy. We've got to lead by example."
Of course the Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona, was just as contrite, saying: "I think that we Republicans, and I think Democrats alike, will realize that if we tone down the rhetoric, sometimes our debate is more effective from our own side. If you take a cue from the movie industry, you look at the top grossing movies; they're almost always PG or PG-13. It's better to have a more civil tone and a civil debate. And I think it behooves all of us to do so."
Is it just me who finds the nature of today's public discourse beyond the pale? We no longer are content with constructive dialogue, but rather resort to dueling monologues, petty sound bites and the occasional crosshairs on a political map. In today's political landscape, it is not enough to simply defeat your opponent; you must destroy him and wipe him off that political map. Television and radio personalities, along with politicians, consistently launch verbal firebombs at each other, with tones that are hostile, dark and ad hominem. It seems there are no shades of gray in our world anymore, just scorn, disrespect and a genuine lack of courtesy for a view opposing one's own.
The advancement of digital technology and social media has enhanced our propensity to mount personal attacks, innuendo and simple lies in the direction of those on the other side of the fence with little fear or rebuke. Technology has made us lazy because we no longer have to pick up a pen, sign our name and address our target on paper. We can do it by e-mail in the anonymity of an untraceable IP address. Social media has turned malcontents into hooded cowards who no longer have to meet the object of their scorn face-to-face - a strategic tweet or status update will do.
A cartoon in a recent Sunday paper showed a husband in one corner of the room typing away on his computer, e-mailing his wife who was on her computer in the opposite corner. He writes to her, "Do you think there's anything to those reports about the Internet making people more isolated and losing social graces?" She fires back, "Of course not, you idiot."
Anger is a knee-jerk reaction that makes us lash out and say hurtful things and in the context of public civil discourse, can only lead to name-calling, personal attacks and character assassination that de-legitimizes and demonizes the opposition. The media and government have created a national rage that goes beyond losing one's temper. It has manifested itself into a national attitude of intolerance for opposing views - a Manichean worldview where the world is a battleground between the forces of good and evil.
These are not the principles of civil discourse America should be proud to hold as a beacon to the world. It is not the foundation of a functioning democracy, but as author Thomas Mann wrote, "It is the politics of accusation and moral annihilation."
A recent poll by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College and Zogby International found that the majority of Americans say they are "turned off" when politics become "rude and nasty," and 95 percent say civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy.
Do we make the argument that the present level of discourse in our society provides some people a sense of entitlement to act or do things that might not ordinarily do? Have we fallen so far that it only takes a sound-bite to launch a tragedy?
The following passage could have come from any of a dozen of today's popular media columnists like George Will, Maureen Dowd or Charles Krauthammer. But in fact, it is from a piece written in 1776 by one of our founding fathers, John Adams. It seemed an appropriate thought to finish my column:
"We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments, God grant us the way. But I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise rather than sense, by meanness rather than greatness, and by ignorance and not learning. There is one thing...that must be attempted and most sacredly observed, or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of every rank, or we are undone. In popular government, this is our only way."
Adams' negatives - noise, meanness and ignorance - describe the state of discourse today. If they continue, indeed we are undone.
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