Loss of Civil Discourse
As I think about tonight’s presidential debate, I bemoan the loss of civil discourse—though my imaginary age of civility may be romanticized a bit. It is, however, true that over the last fifty years we have become more polarized. But it is also true that in the 1840s and 1850s “partisanship was so extreme congressmen took guns to the House of Representatives to protect themselves.”
There has been a cycle from compromise to partisanship repeating itself several times in our relatively short history as a national politic. From the early 1800s partisanship increased steadily culminating in the civil war. Of course, partisanship after the war is complicated. But by the turn of the century partisanship regressed steadily until after the Second World War. Since then, partisanship has steadily risen.
If the pattern holds true, we can expect a steady decline sometime soon. But, the pattern is a bit tenuous—we don’t have that much to go off of. And, to make matters worse, so far every turn in our political partisanship has several exterior explanations that make any cyclical claims partial at best.
So while partisanship is not new, we still may have a crisis on hand. In many ways, this blog was conceived as a means of promoting a thoughtful, respectful dialogue in an age of polarity. But, there is one unavoidable admittance I must make. The rudeness of partisanship has a long and honorific history in our society.
Interpersonal or Political
I would like to be able to claim that aggressive polemics are ineffective, but I cannot. The irony of political dialogue is that it flies in the face of what we know about people on an individual level. On an individual level, polemics, rude expletives, shaming and even contradictory evidence (expressed as such), often only strengthen someone’s original opinion. If our goal is to change minds, it requires a respectful extended dialogue. And these polite conversions do happen, all the time. But they’re slow, laborious, and uncertain. Changing a peer’s mind requires establishing common understanding, common goals, and mutual respect.
These interpersonal interactions are not only civil for strategic reasons, but they are civil because of the nature of the exchange. Change (as a form of movement) assumes time and space. The goal of changing someone’s mind makes the most sense in conversations between people who share some sort of relational nature wherein multiple meetings are conceivable, probable, and desired. Of course, there is some ability of change within a single conversation, but the amount of space for that change to happen is scrunched down to an almost unobservable flatness. The more time and space you imbue into a conversation(s), the more change and movement become realistic goals.
Political discourse is predisposed to become uncivil because it generally takes place between people who do not share this relational nature. This is why political discussions are often taboo in family circles and among friends. Instead, these discussions take place on Facebook and in public forums where people meet absent of any history. And in these scenarios, changing the minds of participants becomes almost meaningless—or at least unpractical. While “convincing” may seem to be the formal reason for the discussion, neither participant participates in a way that would promote this outcome.
Instead, the conversations become political platforms addressing people who are not present within the conversation. It is a performance for an audience—much like two actors might perform a script. While they seem to be talking to each other, they do not mean to persuade each other, but rather the audience—the actors will have the same conversation tomorrow night. Much like the presidential debates, these performative conversations are cultural wars that attempt to sway the allegiance of spectators, not participants.
And so we can fathom why people engaging in these conversations incorporate a rhetoric that is bound to fail in convincing their interlocutor. Because in these scenarios, rudeness often becomes an effective rhetorical tool. What’s more, strategies that might prove effective in interpersonal interactions often fail in political spheres.
For one example, Booker T Washington was a prominent black civil rights activist who advocated a “go slow” policy as Blacks enculturated into white society. While he believed in equality, he thought that best route was to “concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.” He believed a slow, unaggressive, and honest dialogue with the white over-culture would eventually change minds, open doors, and create reconciliation.
But we do not praise him for this. W. E. B. Du Bois, a one-time disciple of Washington, labeled Washington’s plan the “Atlanta Compromise,” a term he used derogatorily. Du Bois believed, like many others, that equality is never given by the dominant class but must be taken. What might work individually does not work collectively.
This began the more aggressive and unapologetic era of civil rights we praise today, and for good reason. It was effective: lunch counter sit ins, bus boycotts, black panthers, marches, freedom riders, etc. While the activists may not have converted a very high percentage of their peers, they converted the children of their peers. Within one generation, common and accepted ideas about race were revolutionized entirely.
How did this happen so quickly? This rapid change is unimaginable in people individually. People are slow to change—seldom changing so dramatically or entirely. I believe the majority of the success is thanks to the aggressive tactics, educational liberalism, and public shaming employed by the civil rights movement which targeted the rising generation. Racial slurs were sequestered, the children of parents with traditionally racist views were ostracized, and society was forced to relearn what was acceptable. Because that’s how needed change happens. Individually we change slowly through extended dialogues. But collectively we are capable of changing rapidly through aggressive politics.
Of course, the civil rights movement is something universally praised, but these same aggressive tactics are (and have been) used by multiple platforms some less noble than others. And the tactic itself says little about the correctness of the position. These tactics only inform that we are witnessing a political, not personal, discussions. It is something I see on Facebook everyday: interpersonal conversations turn into political forums as people become rude, derogatory, and performative.
I realized this recently when I was part of a conversation in which I felt an interpersonal conversation was taking place. After making what I felt to be a polite though contrary opinion, another participant became intensely rude and attempted to shame me from the conversation. Which of course worked. The sort of conversation I believed I was having no longer made sense. It had turned into political posturing, a tug of war wherein appropriate public opinions are decided. In the end, these are battles for control over the rising generation who will be the ones to inherit the accepted sentiments.
Our polite interpersonal discussions are at odds with political dialogue. While we can advocate our beliefs respectfully, believing we are better for it, aggressive agendas will continue to alienate our friends and parents, but convert our children. This is why these agendas have been widely successful and will continue to be. While a thoughtful conversation wins a few important converts, they lose a generation.
Perhaps the best we can do is stop pretending we are bystanders happening upon a scene, and admit we have the ticket stub in our back pocket. A play touches us only if we suspend our disbelief. The moment we “break down the fourth wall” and admit to ourselves that what we are viewing a performance we paid to see, the drama loses its virtue. Political discussion are performed for us. And we are partially responsible for what rhetoric we find appealing and admissible. If we begin to learn to find shaming shameful, polemics uninteresting, and aggression disturbing, the political sphere will bend to accommodate our tastes.