Much has been written about the breakdown in public discourse and civil debate in the country and, as Andrea Leskes puts it in her article Plea for Civil Discourse, “the pervasive dogmatism, close-mindedness, and discourse-by-slogan favored today in the public arena.”
A barrage of soundbites, bumper stickers, tweets, and even graffiti continues to defoliate the conversational landscape. We all feel the impact, hammered as we are by vitriolic attacks across all media platforms blasting through all our devices nonstop. The amount of information being transmitted accelerates exponentially and to larger audiences while the quality of that information does not keep pace. Most often the ubiquitous comments that are disseminated are based on little or no understanding of the topic and the postings bear few or no consequences for the sender.
Democracy has always been messy, starting with our divided and combative early republic, which was forged by working through controversies. There was never a golden age of civil communication to be sure, but today’s polarized standoff appears to be unprecedented.
So, what’s making things so much more overwhelming and challenging today?
Technology, of course. Social media has become the acceptable fabric through which like-minded people relate. While offering great opportunity for creating coalitions and connecting us to the world community, social media can as easily isolate and insulate us. How these cyber tools are used can and have transformed feeds, posts, instant messages and tweets from social banter to social assaults.
Again, to quote Leskes, “We are segregated by the very platforms we choose to use.” The wider communities of people we are exposed to may be more homogeneous ones as well, thereby narrowing the opportunities we have for authentic conversation with people who see things differently.
The early Alchemists in their ‘Stages of Transformation’ identified the initial one as Calcination – things are stuck, motion is limited, and we feel overcome and caught by the trials of everyday life.
People are grappling for ‘followers’ rather than partners, and for converts rather than cohorts. Lee Bollinger (in a Columbia University lecture, 2014), said that “the mission of civil discourse is transmitting to the next generation as much as it can of human understanding and adding new knowledge to the existing store.”
Add to this the fact that positions across political and social spectra have hardened with fault lines established now as never before. By leveraging misinformation and sowing discord to gain position, our ‘Disser-in-Chief’ has effectively devalued civil debate and undermined the exchange of ideas and opinions.
Without civility and trust in our discourse—two qualities that help to bridge chasms between disagreeing parties— we are locked into static thinking and un-evolving positions.