Rest in peace, civility.
You have been and will continue to be dearly missed.
I can’t say exactly when civility died, or when we stopped debating issues and started debating people, but it has happened. The shift from ad rem debates to ad hominem attacks is ubiquitous, and so too are the vitriol and venom that plague modern discourse.
But determining when civility died has become all but irrelevant. We are now living in the first generation never to see discourse in its true form. My generation is accustomed to a form of absoluteness that suggests a middle ground does not exist, only an absolute right and an absolute wrong. What’s worse is that we cannot sit down with even our own neighbors to discuss an issue of vital importance if a disagreement exists. Apparently if you’re not preaching to the choir, you’re wrestling in the mud.
Discourse was never a flawless thing, and the modern idealization of it as some sort of infallible process is simply false. Discourse is raw. Discourse is dirty, gritty. Discourse requires many voices. However, discourse is not personal. Discourse dictates that each voice represents more than just a person, but rather an idea. Discourse is frustrating – exasperating, even. Discourse is beautiful in that nothing is certain and everything is up for debate.
But people often forget that discourse does not necessarily result in a solution. Discourse can fail – and this is not a bad thing.
Discourse and civility once stood as one in the same. The greatest way to exercise civility was to engage in discourse, because it meant you not only felt you had something to share that could benefit others, but you were also willing to listen to what others had to share since simply listening could make a difference.
Discourse always served to sharpen ideas, whether good or bad, bringing them closer to their final form. Even the bad ideas could be made better with enough discussion, and even the best ideas could be found faulty with enough argumentation.
But we have reached a point where we can’t talk to each other anymore.
There are no exceptions to this change in our reality, from disputes within communities to the petty waring in what was once considered “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the U.S. Senate. Columnist Kevin O’Brien, in an op-ed for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland following the abolition of the filibuster, put it best:
The filibuster, which once served a useful purpose now and then, is gone. But I’m not going to miss it. It’s the Senate that I miss. The Senate that the founders designed. The Senate that had a purpose. The Senate that Americans living today have never experienced.
No facet of American life has been spared from the degradation of modern discourse, not even our political bodies. So, what does this mean for our nation?
If we can’t talk with one another anymore, we cannot solve problems. More problems will emerge, existing problems will get worse. We can see this happening on a large scale with gridlock in the federal government, where a major piece of legislation has not been passed and signed into law since January 2013. On a smaller scale, there are a plethora of examples beyond sight, but one stands out as a clear indicator: failing marriages. We see marriages being terminated left and right, many due to an inability to resolve problems. “Irreconcilable differences” seems to mean “we just can’t talk to each other anymore.”
Civility has died, and in its place has emerged a pettiness and personal hatred not seen since the dark days of the build-up to the Civil War, where one member of the House of Representatives resorted to paralyzing physical violence against a member of the Senate with whom he disagreed. Yet, even with the threat of secession hanging overhead, the U.S. government still was able to enact major pieces of legislation as late as 1860, the year the first states seceded.
Somehow, it became ingrained in our minds that people who associate with each other cannot disagree upon anything. Such a mentality eliminates the possibility of any uniting efforts and results in factional chaos. But it doesn’t stop there. The factions eventually begin to disagree with one another, even if just on minor things, to the point where every man and woman stands alone. This perfectly describes the rise and fall of the Tea Party, a group that initially came together because of the members’ agreement upon economic abstractions. As time went on, different factions within the Tea Party demanded specifics be laid out. Some demanded a broad, all-encompassing platform while others favored just a few key principles. Many left the Tea Party as a result of this, but still some remained. But over time, many more left the movement because of even pettier disagreements. Now the Tea Party is all but irrelevant, and the leaders who once oversaw tens of thousands are now finding themselves working with just a few dozen.
We just cannot associate ourselves with others anymore – apparently it’s just too much work. We are all responsible for perpetuating this dysfunctional society we live in. And we don’t deserve better.
Until we can learn to close our laptops, power down our tablets, put down our smartphones, disconnect from social networking and finally hold real conversations again, our society will continue to grow more divisive. Our distractions have made us forget the people in front of us are just that – people. We would rather send a text message or a tweet to communicate with someone instead of having to deal with a situation face to face.
I guess we just can’t handle the idea of not being able to walk away from conversations – without a second thought – when they are going sour. Or having to watch what we say, as it might actually offend the people whose faces we can see sitting in front of us. You can’t see the pain your biting words are inflicting upon a person through the glow of your computer screen. We take shelter behind our screens because the discourse we are having is not fit for civilized, compassionate beings. If we don’t implement a course correction now, we will continue to destroy the lives of the people around us in a counterproductive and repressive form of communication masquerading as discourse.
Civility may be dead, but there is nothing saying we can’t resurrect it. Just as we are the problem, we too can be the solution. If we change the discussion now and treat people like real people again, there is no challenge humanity faces that cannot be overcome.
But until that day, sleep well in your resting place, civility. I pray humanity’s return to you is imminent.