Monday, October 29, 2012

On Civil Discourse

So I want to start this one with a bit of a disclaimer. There will be a few unpleasant, un-politically correct, or downright offensive words in this post. I try hard not to use them in general, but given the nature of the topic, they will come up in quotations or when I paraphrase what was said. I actually know very little about the demographics of the folks that read this blog, so if there are going to be kids reading it, be responsible and talk to them about it.

I've managed to avoid talking about specific contemporary events so far, but I've been toying with this commentary for a while, and a really obvious example came up, so here we go.

This past Monday was the third presidential debate. I watched it, along with a whole lot of other people; one of those people was Ann Coulter. Now, Coulter is known for being inflammatory, and in this specific instance she tweeted "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." This received a lot of attention, but there was only one piece I have read that really speaks to it well in my mind. John Franklin Stephens has written about the use of "the r-word" at some length, and this is a pretty clear example of it.

But this post isn't to denounce Coulter specifically; that was just a useful example.

Public discourse, particularly in the realm of politics, has gotten ugly over the years. My mother talks about watching William F. Buckley and disagreeing with everything he said, but respecting him nonetheless. There was a time when we could do that.

But now everything has gotten polarized to a truly frightening degree and everything is given in apocalyptic terms. If the media is to be trusted at all, large portions of the country believe that if the politician they don't like gets elected president, that it will be the end of the world as we know it. Would you like to know a secret?

That is almost certainly not the case. Things will most likely be ok either way.

Here are some more fun things: Obama isn't a socialist. If you compare his policies to those of actual socialist countries, he's at best a moderate conservative. Also, Romney isn't actually a plutocrat, and for the record, G. W. Bush wasn't/isn't a nazi. Also, no one is Hitler. I'd just like to get that stuff out of the way.

We use terms like this because they evoke emotions, and are easily understood on some base level, but they are wholly inaccurate and we should aim to converse better than that.

I have a confession to make; I am an internet arguer. I argue with people on the internet. I do it a lot. I may have a problem.  And in debates on the internet, it is very easy for things to escalate quickly and get to a point of true absurdity even faster. It's generally not very productive.

And people behave the same way in the real world, too. There are rules to civilized debate and discussion. It's commonly understood that you attack the idea, not the person, and that you articulate it the best you can. These rules have also been disregarded.

Now, please don't misunderstand me. I'm not a proponent for censorship. I don't think that I, or anyone, has the right to tell you what you can or can't say. I just don't think that is ever acceptable. What I do believe in is self-control.

I grew up doing martial arts. Any dojo worth it's salt will teach you that anger is a dangerous and foolish thing. You can also easily learn that from Star Wars. If you fight angry, you will almost certainly fight sloppy, and make mistakes. If the person you are fighting is good, they will absolutely exploit those mistakes and you will lose. If they aren't, in your uncontrolled state you may well do more damage than you intended. This is as true with words as it is with fists, as most of us know firsthand.

Have you ever gotten into an argument, gotten upset, and then hurt someone you loved by spurting out something in a fit of anger? Worse, have you ever been angry and seen that opening where you knew you could hurt them, and you took it because it was there? I think most people have at some point; I know I have. I also know I have always regretted it.

Which is why I have trained not to do that anymore.

If we want to convince people of things we need to be calm and reasonable. If we want someone to see our point of view, we need to demonstrate that point with well thought-out arguments. When you attack someone, they will go on the defensive and the conversation has ended, even if you both keep talking. Words have meanings and word choice is one of the more potent tools we have. We need to learn how to say what we mean.

So if there is a hope for rational discourse, we need to change our own behavior and our own expectations. I know that I am not perfect in this, but I'm trying. I also expect a certain level of discourse from people around me, and simply will not participate if a common level can't be found. Maybe that's a little too "I'm taking my ball and going home," but it's the only move I have. As I said, I can't tell someone what they can and can't say. I can only choose what I will respond to.

Getting mad at someone, insulting someone, hurting someone can feel really good. It's one of the less pleasant parts of human nature, but it is there. Maybe it stems from tribal living, or other hierarchical structures in human development. Maybe it stems from the fact that we are emotional and instinctual creatures before we are rational. I'm not a psychiatrist, sociologist or anthropologist, and I think you would need to be all three to hope to really answer that question.

But the fact that it is real doesn't mean it is the right way to do it. We are social animals, and if you want to succeed, you need society in one form or another so we need to learn to work together.

And that starts with our ability to actually talk to each other. Not to talk at each other, yell or attack... but the ability to actually converse.

And until we decide to make that change, things are only going to keep going down the route they have been following.

1 comment:

  1. Hm...I'm not going to comment on the incivility on the Internet. I think that's its own topic. But in politics?

    This may not be popular on a post asking for civility, but that kind of rhetoric is coming largely from conservative politicos, it's systemic, and has been since the Nixon years. (See Rick Perlstein's brilliant book, Nixonland.) The purpose? To break up coalition of natural economic allies by driving issues of race, sexuality, and feminism between them. That's why Republicans court Birthers, keep referring to Obama as the "food stamp president," display bumper stickers that say "Either you're for Obama or America; you can't have both," stick gubernatorial candidates' pictures in sex offender registries, go after Acorn for registering inner-city voters, etc & co.

    And the tactics won't stop until they stop working.

    But don't get me wrong. Leftys can say mean things, and Democratic campaigns contain simplistic, distorted attack messages. But you just can't compare the coordination of effort or the extremism in rhetoric. It's not even close.