We Are the Reason Our Public Discourse Is Terrible

We Are the Reason Our Public Discourse Is Terrible October 10, 2016

Image via Pixabay

Sunday night was the second presidential debate, and it was, unsurprisingly, truly something to behold. (You can catch up on the whole debate here if you’re bored and/or a masochist and/or really interested in politics.¹)

This is not a post about the debate in general, and I’m not going to editorialize here on who I thought was the winner (spoiler: it was Martha Raddatz).

Instead, I want to stop for a second and make one point that I think the debate subtly but elegantly brought out.

Take a look at two questions from the debate:

The last presidential debate could have been rated as MA — “Mature Audiences” — per TV parental guidelines. Knowing that educators assign presidential debates as students’ homework, do you feel you are modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?

Regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?

These were, respectively, the first and last questions of the debate, and they were fitting bookends to what was a difficult debate to endure.²

They also represent what is (in my opinion, rightly) thought by many Americans, as well as observers outside the US, to be a major problem here: the quality of public discourse. Political polarization has grown dramatically among Americans, and our public discourse both reflects and exacerbates that polarization.

It’s such a common complaint that it’s almost become a cliché. It’s not even always a partisan complaint; in my own personal conversations about politics this election cycle, I’ve been able to commiserate with conservatives who hold a similar view and wax nostalgic for the days when people of different political persuasions could disagree but still be civil to each other.

And while this has been a trend for a number of years, this election cycle at least feels significantly worse, driven in large part (but not wholly) by a candidate with such a penchant for incivility that we had to lose at least a few news cycles talking about that video where he privately talked about grabbing women’s genitals without any guilt or recriminations. The same candidate who, in this very debate, actually called his opponent “the devil.”

But here’s the truth: Our public discourse is terrible because we make it that way.

We can gnash our teeth over debates that aren’t child-friendly or campaigns that run more negative than positive all we want, but we are the ones rewarding that behavior. Blaming the candidates or their campaigns is too easy a scapegoat.

I made this point before about the atheist movement, but it holds here as well: We have to be willing to do more than just denounce incivility. We can kvetch all we want about how the candidates are running ugly campaigns and how we only hear about scandals and candidate-bashing, but then we run right to media like Fox News or Breitbart or The Young Turks or US Uncut that gives us practically a non-stop supply of the same. And then we invariably share those sites (and ones even less credible or accurate!) on social media, in our bubbles of like-minded people, perpetuating the same sort of behavior.

Debates and campaigns are revelatory in this respect because they force us to grapple with this uncomfortable reality, but let’s be perfectly clear: Our discourse doesn’t end on Election Day. There are always public conversations happening, and we contribute those even if we aren’t active participants. In fact, if we were active participants, it’s likely that we would contribute more positively because we would have some skin in the game.

Changing the discourse is not a goal that can be achieved with a sledgehammer. It requires us to do at least two things: 1) to recognize it at times other than big elections and 2) to bring our game in the off-season as well. This means being more reflective about how we’re approaching our own conversations, more aware how we’re contributing by what information we consume and share, and more willing to keep others accountable for the same.

None of this, of course, is simple, and it forces us to have greater self-discipline and cultivate better relationships with people who are also striving for that same kind of self-discipline. In essence, we must become better thinkers and more responsible citizens before our discourse will become equally more civil and reasonable.

Until then, it does no good to complain about the discourse that we get. After all, it’s the discourse we earned.


Image via Pixabay

¹ But I repeat myself. ^

² Aside: I thought Trump’s answer to the last question was much better than Clinton’s. For whatever that’s worth. ^

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