It once was considered good form to engage one’s brain before engaging one’s mouth. This procedure was known as ‘civility’, or ‘civil discourse’, and was once quite popular. It was the thing, perhaps, that kept us from killing each other. It was the thing that kept marriages together, even in times of trouble. Until one day somebody, and I know not who, gave the process a name: political correctness. For some reason, giving it a name made it a process to be shunned, made it unpopular.
The latest evidence of the reversal of civil discourse is a comment I read this morning by republican Senator Orrin Hatch when speaking to a group at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday:
“[We] finally did away with the individual mandate tax that was established under that wonderful bill called Obamacare. Now, if you didn’t catch on, I was being very sarcastic. That was the stupidest, dumbass bill that I’ve ever seen. Some of you may have loved it. If you do, you are one of the stupidest, dumbass people I’ve ever met. [emphasis added] There are a lot of them up there on Capitol Hill from time to time.”
Hatch later apologized, sort of, for his remarks saying they were ‘flippant’ and ‘off-the-cuff’, though it appeared he was reading from a prepared speech. ‘A poorly-worded joke’, he said. Not to let Senator Hatch off the hook, for he deserves to be called on the carpet for his remarks, but he is only one of many who, seemingly energized by the populist movement in general, and by Donald Trump specifically, have relaxed both their brains and their mouths, and allow whatever thoughts they have to tumble out unfettered.
There are many definitions for ‘civil discourse’:
- “Engagement in discourse intended to enhance understanding …”
- “The language of dispassionate objectivity”
A June editorial in the Los Angeles Times suggests “Trump didn’t birth American intolerance. He’s the manifestation of our long-disturbed national dialogue.” In response, a reader of the Times wrote …
“When personal computers and the Internet became ubiquitous, civility was dealt a final blow. It’s so easy to be nasty and cruel sitting at a keyboard, never seeing what impact the nastiness and vulgarity are having on the recipients of such missives.”
We could debate … with civility … for days and still not likely pin down an answer about when, how and why we have lost the art of true communication sans rancor, or civil discourse. But the debate is rather pointless, rather like worrying about how the dog got rabies, instead of taking the dog to the vet to be treated for the condition.
We in the U.S. are living in the most divisive, polarized environment since the Civil War era, and the thing that is most lacking is understanding of the other side. Understanding is not going to come to any of us in a nightly dream, nor is it going to suddenly strike us like a streak of lightening. The only path to understanding is going to come through conversation. By conversation, I do not mean the type of communication we see daily on CNN or Fox News, where people are constantly deriding one side or the other, name-calling and using phrases that are designed not to communicate, but to stir anger and resentment. The only thing this type of communication accomplishes is to push the two sides further apart.
Not long ago, I wrote a piece titled Thoughts on Integrity in which I opined that integrity is basically dead in many areas including government, medicine and religion. I would say the same for civility, only I would add that the loss of civility has extended to many other areas, including families, friendships and neighbors.
If we are to make a start at narrowing what I have referred to as The Great Divide in this nation, we are going to have to have a return to civil discourse, a return to kindness, compassion, a return to listening to what another person says rather than listening only with the intention of providing a response. We need to listen to each other … truly listen. Then, before responding, we must think … process what was said, and respond with calmness, not rancor, not vitriol. This is not easy, but I think that the longer we wait to make a start, the harder it gets. I too am guilty of this. Words can hurt, words can anger … we need to choose our words much more carefully. We must learn, once again, to be kind.
I’m not advocating that we have to agree with everything we hear, for we are not lemmings. But there are ways of disagreeing without offending. Our words need not be a personal affront, or target the other person. We can, as one of my friends is fond of saying, respectfully agree to disagree and move on.
But I think the example needs to come from the top. Church leaders need to remove the politics of intolerance and hate from their speech. Politicians, our elected representatives, need to treat us and also each other with respect. For a senator to refer to the people he has been tasked to represent as ‘stupid’ or ‘dumbass’ is simply unacceptable. Every one of his constituents should be writing letters respectfully protesting and reminding him that he faces re-election in a few short months.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to freedom of speech, and yes, hate speech is protected as long as it does not incite violence. Whether that should be the case or not is a discussion beyond the scope of this post, but it is up to us to show some common sense, to treat others with respect, to learn to keep our mouths shut sometimes. Just because you can say something, just because the U.S. Constitution gives you the right to say something cruel and senseless, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is helpful or will solve any problems.
The leaders of this nation, both in Congress and in the White House, need to first set the tone, need to learn to speak without raised voices, without shaking fists, without name calling. But first, they need to learn to listen. How can they possibly manage the government that is ‘by the people, for the people, and of the people’ if they do not listen to the people, if they do not know the needs of the people, and if they view We the People as ‘stupid dumbasses’?
Is civil discourse dead? Perhaps so. Can it be revived? Surely it can, but it requires the effort of each and every one of us. It requires a commitment to respect the opinions of others, even those we disagree with. And it requires that sometimes we be willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, we were wrong. The ability to say, “I’m sorry”. Think about it.