Civil discourse is dying. Reasoned persuasion is largely absent from politics and from almost any part of the media. "Debate" has degenerated into sound bites and name calling, with the "winner" determined based on the best zinger rather than a clearly reasoned argument. Those making controversial statements are often quickly denounced, vilified, and labeled with epithets that would formerly have been reserved for true criminals.
Why does it matter? It matters because it signals a decline in the quality of thought and reasoning. We live in complicated times with problems that often require complicated solutions. It is difficult to get to a solution by shouting over or at each other.
It also matters because it leads to polarization. It is hard to remember a time in which our political parties and elected leaders have been so divided for so long. I trace the current division back to the Bush/Gore election of 2000, and, if this is correct, it means that the current period of polarization has lasted for a full 13 years, punctuated only by a brief period of respite after the 9/11 tragedy. Polarization means that nothing gets accomplished, or, if one party is completely in power, legislation gets passed without bipartisan support, which inevitably leads to more polarization.
What are the causes? The causes are complex, and are necessarily rooted in philosophical differences between the left and the right. But there have always been differences, and those differences do not in themselves explain why the quality of discourse has substantially declined while the shrillness has monumentally increased. Although there are undoubtedly many reasons, here are a few somewhat random thoughts on why this is the case.
- Cable news and the sound bite. Time constraints, commercial interruptions, and perhaps simply a change in journalistic approach mean that in-depth reporting is simply not in vogue. Instead, the quick quip, sound bite or talking point has reigned for many years with pundits aggressively trying to top each other. Both Fox and CNN claim to present "debates," but they almost always devolve into disrespectful shouting matches where nothing intelligent is said. This approach makes the cable network news almost unwatchable.
- Social media. In a very short period of time, a large portion of the population has begun receiving most of their information through Twitter or social media. It is pretty difficult to say anything really intelligent in 140 characters, much less engage in a meaningful discussion.
- Anonymity. Anonymity is often an aspect of social media and talk radio. It is much easier to ridicule, threaten or demonize another person or another point of view when you do not have to stand up and take responsibility for it.
- The decline of the newspaper industry. The newspaper industry is in a substantial state of decline. Many communities used to have two papers with differing editorial points of view. Now even larger cities tend to have only one paper, and many are a shadow of what they used to be. Declining advertising revenue means less reporting and less depth, and often the editorial quality suffers as well. Some papers have made the fundamental mistake of embracing a one-sided editorial policy which, in today's environment, is a surefire way of alienating about half of the potential readership.
- Smart phones can make us dumb. The Blackberry, and then the iPhone and Android may each represent a technological advance, but they haven't done much to advance social interaction. On any campus, city street, or at any restaurant or pub, you can see people staring at their phone, utterly self-absorbed in playing a game or responding to a text. It is the height of irony that a device that was originally designed to let people talk to each other seems to have caused us to converse less. There is also no indication that "smart" phones help us think great thoughts.
- It's usually not better in writing. Much of our everyday communication is now reduced to writing in emails or texts. The result is that people, especially young people, do not talk to each other nearly as much as in the past. Learning conversational skills and how to read people is fundamental to having a robust and meaningful exchange of ideas.
Are there any solutions? Quite frankly, I have no idea, and, on a macro level, there is little room for optimism. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the extent of ignorance of basic political issues by the American populace is pretty astonishing. This ignorance tends to lead politicians -- always focused on retaining office -- to rely on even more sound bites and zingers. The only thing that is certain is that, if there is going to be any change, and that is a big "if," it will not happen overnight. Perhaps the best place to start is small. Here are a few modest ideas.
- Tune out. The one thing television networks understand is ratings. The ratings of many cable networks are down substantially. Maybe at some point a network will actually try for balanced and meaningful programing on issues of national import (rather than the latest sensational murder trial) in which participants are allowed a reasonable amount of time to state their views, and are expected to respond in a civil and meaningful way.
- Read. Even with the decline of the newspaper industry, there are still lots of excellent sources for news. For example, for strongly differing editorial positions in business publications, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are a good start. RSS feeds also allow the aggregation of news in "readers" such as Feedly. Unfortunately, Google pulled the plug on Google Reader earlier this year.
- Converse. Make an effort actually to converse with your spouse, your co-workers, or your fellow students. It's not that hard; people have been doing it for thousands of years! A few suggestions to get you started: "What do you think about [name a subject]"? "Why?" "Do you think there is another side to that?"
- Think before you send that text or email. Would it be better to pick up the phone or even to talk face to face? You will almost certainly communicate more efficiently and you might even make a new friend.
- Try not to react immediately. We live in a world where an immediate response or reaction is viewed as a norm, even though it rarely leads to anything positive. If someone says something you disagree with, instead of disagreeing, denouncing, or labeling, consider not responding at all. If some response seems necessary, consider asking "why do you think that?" If you disagree after the explanation, perhaps asking a question is a better approach instead of trying to win an argument. For example, instead of making a statement, asking whether "have you thought about [the other side]" may lead to a more meaningful discussion.
- Be judicious with social media. Social media is here to stay. It can be fun and even useful. However, it is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with 140 characters. And take responsibility for what you put out there.