In the Sept. 24 edition of the North Wind, Gabriel Brahm wrote a Professor’s Corner column which issued a plea for civility in personal and public life. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s not that I’m in favor of incivility – least of all directed against a colleague.
Moreover, professor Brahm may be right that incivility is on the increase in private life, though I do not know how that could be reliably measured.
Interestingly, the recent unseemly outbursts by Serena Williams and Kanye West met with pretty widespread disapproval, summed up rather nicely by President Obama’s off-mic (and uncivil?) comment: “Kanye is a jackass.” In the blogs I read, the comments sections resounded with applause for that response. So all is not lost at the level of interpersonal politeness.
That is a good thing, for basic politeness is not a wimpy luxury – it expresses simple respect and consideration for other people. When those qualities are in jeopardy, a society is heading for trouble.
The issue is more complicated at the public level. Here, invoking the need for civility or “bipartisanship” often serves as a way of avoiding controversial – but very important – issues in favor of a bland and bloodless consensus. In my judgment, that is as undesirable an outcome as a free-for-all with stilettos drawn and guns at the ready.
America has been uncivil in public before over slavery, civil rights and the Vietnam War. Would the country have been better off without this incivility? I don’t think so. People’s passions were rightly ignited over fundamental moral issues. The problem now is that public incivility coexists with an unwillingness to discuss fundamental political issues. It is strange, but – angry as it often is – contemporary American political culture seems to shy away from real debate.
Just compare the predictable, innocuous and downright deferential manner that pervades those carefully orchestrated “Town Meetings” during presidential campaigns, or the much-praised “decorum” of Senate debates with the raucous atmosphere of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the British Parliament, where the Prime Minister is treated as what he is – a public servant, accountable to the people, not a demigod.
Question Time institutionalizes vigorous debate, and accepts incivility within broad limits as a necessary condition for that debate.
Lacking this kind of forum, American politics either falls silent, or resorts to the angry and irresponsible name-calling professor Brahm so effectively criticizes.
But the really interesting question is how the disturbingly high levels of public incivility that are currently evident in American political discourse have arisen. Has the private rudeness resulting from a culture that encourages people to “act out” simply migrated to public life? Maybe, but to my mind, a much more important factor is television and the influence of public relations on political discourse.
There’s money in conspiracy theories, insults and shouting matches between bow-tied pundits. As long as viewers tolerate this kind of swill, the atmosphere will become even more poisonous.
Looking into my crystal ball, I see a cloudy but plausible future, in which Fox News and CNN hold pundit-wrestling matches, or reintroduce duels, this time on “reality” shows. I devoutly hope that my crystal ball is malfunctioning, but I do wonder.
Editors note : Jonathan Allen is an assistant professor in the political science department at NMU. The Professor’s Corner is a weekly column written by various faculty. Any professor interested in writing should contact the opinions editor at [email protected]