The Futility of Civility

January 25th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, there has been much renewed discussion about the tenor of political discourse in America and the need for a return to a more civil tone among those with divergent views. But even such a horrible national event couldn’t tear many in the politicosphere from their ideological high horses. Yes, after the initial burst of partisan finger pointing, a temporary truce was established in which leaders from each side struck just the right pose of civility and conciliation for the nation to see to help the “collective healing,” before returning the following week to business as usual. It reminds me of how a bitterly divorced couple puts on an air of unity to see their now-adult child get married, then immediately after the “I dos” returns to their previous state of loathing.

This topic is near and dear to me as I have attempted to maintain a respectful tone in my blogging (with, admittedly, a few false steps), even when I occasionally drift into Partisanland. I have also written about why our political discourse is so toxic and offered suggestions on how to encourage a more civil tone our political conversations. I even made a short-lived attempt to organize a National Civil Discourse Day. Inevitably, it died a quick and painless death.

And, like so many Americans, I was moved by President Obama’s speech in Tucson. But the feeling didn’t last long; the inspiration turned to futility as soon as I returned to the real world of politics. Despite my efforts to maintain a modicum of optimism toward the hope for a calmer and more reasoned tone in the politicosphere, I have come to the conclusion that it is a pipe dream that will never happen.

In a utopian world, ideals would trump the coarser motivators in life. Respect, rationality, and maturity would dictate civil discourse, even in the most noxious political environs. But ideals no longer seem to have a place in our culture. Other unruly forces, including greed, narcissism, arrogance, and power, trump the quiet and restrained strength of civility and have become the unwritten law of the political landscape.

There is simply too much to be gained from angry discourse for it to stop. Cable news channels, political web sites, and bloggers profit financially from the vitriol. The egomaniacal ranting-and-raving talking heads get the attention they crave. The lunatic fringe, however small in number and ill informed, can be heard above the already eardrum-breaking political din. The ideological bases are given red meat to satisfy their voracious appetites. And those who suffer the most, the disenfranchised, helpless, and hopeless, are able to turn their fear and desperation into anger and determination.

Is there any hope? In the politicosphere, I believe the answer is no. The current zeitgeist is just too rotten and maggot infested to offer any hope of a change in tone. But for those of the populace who aren’t ideologically arrogant or rigid, can separate the truth from the spin, are still governed by reason and the desire for respectful engagement, and not willing to lower themselves into the political sewer, there is a smidgen of hope. And, to quote our president, the “audacity of hope” is all that we have right now.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

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7 Responses to “The Futility of Civility”

  1. larry ennis |

    dr. J
    There aint no middle ground.
    It’s hard to remember when there ever was. I place the final break in civil discourse at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Everything the majority of us held dear was called into question and attacked. We were told that our past leaders were dirty thieving bastards that spent their time raping and pillaging the red and the black man. We the decedents of these men were equally guilty. A full scale assault was launched against “homeland” America as we had known it.
    People like Bill Ayres, Sal Alinsky and Jerry Rubin fermented hate and distrust for American society. They targeted the students and poor with their hate America rhetoric. It has worked beyond their wildest hopes. We are now a nation of continual inter turmoil.
    Jim, you question if it will ever end. My short answer is “NO”. In order for the socialist dreams of 1968 to fully materialize all traces of earlier generations will have to disappear. People such as myself cannot embrace the ideals that offer to destroy or at the very least condemn every value that we hold dear. The good news for my detractors is the age of their enemies. People that believe the same as I do because of actual pre-1968 experience will be dead. What is left will be a nation of like minded individual. There will no longer be any need for a national discourse.
    God help us all!

  2. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I agree that there isn’t much hope for greater civility in our political discourse. There are simply too many extremists with easy access to mass media for that to happen. And politicians on both sides who might not themselves be extremists have to lean toward them in order to be re-elected.

    Larry, it’s true that 1968 was a key year in recent American history. However, you understand it very poorly. The problems that came to a boil in 1968 had nothing to do with “socialist dreams” in a causative sense. I realize that from a position out on the far right it may seem that way, but that isn’t reality. Beyond that, as bad as 1968 may have been, there have been other very bad years, and there have been periods when public discourse in America has been as least as vitriolic as it is now.

  3. Brian |

    The problem as I see it is that the divide is about what is seen as “good and proper.” If there were vast agreement on what is good and proper, and only a disagreement on how to get there, I don’t think we’d have the problems that we now face.

  4. Tom Carter |

    Brian, that’s exactly right. When you exclude the extremists and talk to an average Democrat and an average Republican, you find two people who are honest, serious, and only want the best for the country. They disagree on what is best, of course, but without the extremist influence to push them, they can generally get along and work together despite their disagreements.

    Maybe we should just turn off the internet, the cell phone systems, and cable TV (where is the master switch?) so people have to go a bit more slowly, read a little more, and actually talk more to their neighbors. Just a thought….

  5. drjim |

    Well said, Tom. I think a good electromagnetic pulse (a la Dark Angel) would do the trick!

    P.S. Does anyone remember Dark Angel and who its star was?!?!

  6. Brian |

    I’d point out that the Revolutionary War was fought by “extremists” – about 1/3 of the colonists wanted independence, about 1/3 didn’t care either way, and about 1/3 were loyalists.

    Is it extreme to point out that little, if anything, espoused by democrats comports with rational ethics? Not much more so the GOP, either.

  7. larry ennis |

    I’ll be the first to admit that my take on the political mechanics of this nation may be lacking. Your assertion that my understanding of the true implications 1968 are inadequate could have merit. You then follow that assertion with yet another about my view from the right. I still contend that 1968 was a pivotal year in America’s political consciousness.
    I’m certain that you will want to comment so please include any pertinent information that you believe I’ve overlooked.

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