Uncivil Discourse

One of the distressing things about our present cultural morass is the low level of civil discourse. Even more troubling is the growing inability of people in this society to express themselves at all. What we have, then, is the felt-need of many to lower the level of discourse to the visceral coupled with their inability to say what they mean! Rather than deal with issues and agree to disagree with one another in a civil manner, we have become a nation of interrupters, shouters, mud-slingers — and tongue-tied tweeters.

The recent debacle surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s trashing of a young woman for having the gall to approach Democratic members of a Congressional committee and suggest that health insurance plans should fund contraceptives to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is well documented. Less well documented is actress Patricia Heaton’s leaping to Limbaugh’s side in lashing out at the young law student. Both have apologized. While Heaton’s twitter-trashing was fairly intelligible, her apology was more typical, buried as it is in the usual twitterese:

“re @SandraFluke Mea culpa Sandra! Wasn’t being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don’t like you being dissed -so sorry.”

One of the more interesting things here is the gibberish that is beginning to take over as language in a language-impoverished society. Vocabulary has dropped off precipitously and teachers are already complaining that their students cannot write complete sentences. Technology is simply making matters worse. (It is sobering to consider that Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen!) We not only don’t have much to say in the first place, we can’t even say it in an intelligible way. This is especially problematic since our inability to express ourselves directly impairs our ability to think. In any event, the lower level of discourse that substitutes an ad hominem attack for a well-reasoned argument is now coming in the form of dissing on twitter.

People have always disagreed, and the disagreement has often taken a nasty turn. The ad hominem fallacy in logic that rests on the fact that a person himself or herself is being attacked rather than that person’s argument has been around for a long time. It is tempting to commit it on purpose — and even fun. The English are very good at it, as we can see by tuning in to a debate in Parliament. It makes for good entertainment and those in the public eye have long relished the humorous effect their personal attacks can have. Rush Limbaugh is simply one of the more recent champions of this sort of discourse, though he takes it to a lower level with intent to cripple. And Patricia Heaton is free to join him if she chooses to do so. We do have freedom of speech in this country. But one despairs over the fact that typically these attacks show little imagination and seem to lower the level of discourse even further into the mire of personal vilification.

When a young woman is pilloried in public for having the audacity to testify before a political group on behalf of a legitimate concern — a concern that should be shared by those who claim to be “pro-life,” since abortions would be less common if pregnancies were prevented in the first place — we have clearly sunk to a new low. One can only hope we have learned something from all this. But even if we have, the chances are we haven’t learned how to express ourselves more clearly or how to raise the level of discourse above the mire. And in an election year we can expect more of the same.

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4 thoughts on “Uncivil Discourse

  1. Fortunately, there are people like the great satirist/parodist Stephen Colbert who use media and the new media to skewer people like Bill O’Reilly (Colbert’s show is a head-on parody of O’Reilly’s show) Limbaugh — and many others, including cultural icons and traditions, and those in power — with pin-point, intelligent humor. A couple of clips from last week’s shows:
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/376919/march-09-2011/stephen-gives-up-catholicism-for-lent
    this is a recap of last week’s top clips: http://www.colbertnation.com/
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/410170/march-07-2012/higgs-boson-humor

  2. Colbert, like the best satirists, I think does more than help us laugh but finds some deep truths about us. But there are some truly serious sources/people who use new technology to engage and uplift the political/civic discourse. Some are homegrown, such as http://www.mn2020.org, http://www.minnpost.com, http://www.mpr.org. Others such as the National Institute for Civil Discourse, http://nicd.arizona.edu/objectives, http://www.centerforcivildiscourse.com/, are national but instruct and allow for civil exchanges.

  3. I totally agree with you about satire revealing truths about ourselves. But can you honestly say you see evidence of an “uplift” in civil discourse in the past 50 years? I would love to believe you, but I see a downward spiral, not much uplifting!

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