The Death of Civil Discourse photo: Christopher Burns

I
still remember quite vividly my early days in college leading up to the 1992 presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. While traditionalists and older political analysts thought Clinton would have a very hard time overcoming a sitting president who had just won a war, Generation X voters were impassioned by the energy and intellectualism of the saxophone-playing candidate. While there were many issues that account for that Clinton victory, I always recall how excited us young voters were about finally getting someone into the White House who could TALK.

No matter what his flaws, Clinton could spit into the mic and we were enraptured! What I did not know at the time was that this would be the starting point in the United States in which the concept of civil discourse would not only deteriorate over an entire generation but would become an almost lost treasure. And this deterioration has perhaps achieved its nadir with the current president.

Looking back now I realize just how disrespectful our slightly ageist condescension was projecting onto our voting behavior: we didn’t want this old man who had no concept of the ‘vision thing’ and who almost stuttered any time he spoke before the public. It did not matter that this was a man who had spent a lifetime highly decorated, having served in various important positions throughout the federal government. We pretended that our rejection of Bush was based on the issues, but a lot of it was just our own dismissal of his ‘worthiness’ to represent us on a style level. Ultimately, as we all know, the two terms of Bill Clinton delivered in spades a lesson to all progressives of how easily the pendulum of disrespectful discourse can swing back against you: by the time Clinton left office, his various moral foibles had produced an atmosphere for civil discourse that was even worse, more derisive and corrosive, than anything seen back in 1991-1992.

Of course, as we all know, the problem with the exit of Bill Clinton from the Oval Office was that it signaled the entrance of George W. Bush. Cue the pendulum of disrespect, dismissal, and distaste to swing back in the other direction: once more, instead of new civil discourse about ideas, programs, policies, and vision, people were more obsessed with simply destroying each other. Once more we supposedly had an ignorant moron in the White House: someone who was either uncomfortable or simply unfamiliar with the English language. A simpleton who did not deserve to be in the Oval Office. So, while I had been concerned throughout the 90s at how severely civil discourse seemed to degrade from H.W. Bush to Clinton, I was thoroughly horrified by how much worse that discourse became - more harsh, more brazen, more vulgar - from Clinton to W. Bush throughout the 2000s.

As we started to ramp up for the 2008 election, I once more became caught up in the history of the moment, in the sense of bringing change to our system and structures. Even the campaign itself of Barack Obama focused on ‘hope.’ This would be the moment, I thought to myself. THIS would be the change the country has long needed. Except the change I wanted to see had nothing to do with party, ideology, or specific conservative-liberal policy debates. The change I thought would arrive with Obama, after eight horrific years of W. Bush, would be a change of open dialogue, intellectual engagement, and civil conversation over ideas. Alas, I was spectacularly wrong.

This article is not about which parts of the blame pie for this continued civil discourse degradation are bigger or biggest. Some have reason to believe the only reason things got worse under Obama was because of tried-and-true racism: the inability of closeted and not-so-closeted bigots to accept a black man as president of America. Others take a softer tactic and simply state it was verbal and intellectual payback time: after enduring so much dismissive derision and disrespect during Bush the Younger’s two terms, there were plenty of people determined to give back in kind to the new Democratic president. As is so often the case, my guess is that reality is best located with a mixture of all the factors and it therefore might not be so important to figure out exact percentages of blame. For me, again in terms of civil discourse, all that mattered was that my initial hope for finally establishing a positive trend for discussive engagement was dashed against the rocks of partisan vitriol and bile.

During Obama’s two terms I remember thinking to myself, ‘well, no matter what happens, it just isn’t possible that in 2016 this trend of progressively deteriorating civil discourse could get worse.’ After all, I had at this point literally spent my entire adult life under the tyranny of worsening dialogue, where the intellectual exchange of ideas meant to advance knowledge had been replaced by the shrill harping of empty platitudes serving no purpose but to cut, wound, and humiliate. Surely it could not be possible to take this environment and find a way to make it plumb to yet deeper, more disgusting depths? Citizens of the world, I give you President Donald Trump! Incredibly, we found ways to have the depths plumbed deeper and new layers of depravity now dominate the corridors of discourse.

Over the years I thought this disturbing reality was a top-down problem: if only we could have that truly unique chief executive in the Oval Office, one who could transcend all of this vulgar bile and ideological hatred, then the situation across all layers of American society would begin to improve. Part of me still wishes to believe this. But I fear I must confess that this wish is indeed just that: wishful thinking based on no real evidence. I worry now that this problem was never a top-down problem to be remedied by some extraordinary individual. Instead, it is a bottom-up problem that reflects the degradation of our society overall: one in which people do not seek to learn, are fearful of ever being seen as ‘wrong,’ and avoid at all costs being challenged in any intellectual way whatsoever.

This version of the problem more accurately explains the cringe-worthy, vomit-inducing political environment holding America hostage on both sides of the aisle; it explains why the word ‘compromise’ is literally seen by the majority of Americans as cowardice and not as a symbol of reasoned and wise judgment; it accounts for the explosion of fake news and people’s apparent passion for following it; it exposes the truth behind college campuses seemingly more focused on limiting the discourse of ideas for their students rather than exposing them to as many ideas as possible and demanding that they hone their discourse skills to take on all comers and defeat anathema positions with sound arguments and logical persuasion.

We have dropped our society from an avenue that once held serious intellectual discussions on a justifiably high pedestal into a gutter that avoids substantive civil discourse and presumes none of us are able to participate in discussions at all unless we have a predetermined guarantee of being lauded and unchallenged. We do not even see the irony of not allowing the chance to be ‘wrong,’ even though the concept of falsifiability has literally been the bedrock upon which all serious research, scholarship, and thinking is based. It is only in being wrong, only in the free exchange of challenging and challenged ideas, that society in its entirety improves and moves forward. We have not just lost this simple axiom, we have rejected it. We now live in self-perpetuating sycophantic echo chambers, gilded towers of Babel built to ourselves.

How does this stop? How do we bring back civil discourse from the edge of the abyss where it presently sits? I have no illusions at how hard it will be. Not only does it demand a desire for change within the people themselves: to be accepting of the fact that they are not infallible, that their ideas are not the ONE TRUE PATH to which all others must bow, that engaging in debate must not be a gladiatorial fight to the death but a civil discourse aimed at making all in attendance more reflective, more contemplative, that the issues being discussed are enriched simply by the act of civility itself, and that ideas are meant to change and evolve, to be dynamic and not static. It also demands that our institutions, administrations, thought leaders and scholars, our intellectuals en masse must not be afraid to support the structures that create, facilitate, and maintain arenas for such discourse. Right now we live with institutes that are so afraid of people engaging that instead of leading the charge they are cowering in the rear, hiding from possible protests, bad press, or potential litigation.

I have long held a secret dream: to travel the country, indeed the world, visiting as many institutions and organizations as I can, openly engaging their best thinkers in a series of debates, on whatever topics are most important to them, to challenge and instigate and provoke. I want to do this not to embarrass people or destroy particular issues in favor of others. I want this initiative done so as to begin the process of making people realize that civil discourse is the only true way to create new ideas, new passions, and new progress. It is the only way we get better. It is the only way we grow. We, the intellectuals and scholars, the middle layer of society, are the ones best suited to begin this movement. But, so far, not a single institution and its resident experts have answered my call and my challenge. This is most unfortunate. Because this society we have created, a society of incivility and empty rhetoric in place of civil discourse and substantive engagement, is a society we must destroy before it literally destroys us.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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