It seems pretty self evident that civil discourse has significantly degraded in American society over the last 20 years. I think that ideological divisions have always been this deep, and rhetoric has flared from time to time in defense of these ideologies. But lately, the level of animosity and the amount of vitriol seems to have dramatically increased. The catalyst is most probably the suite of advanced communications tools that we have developed. The RAND Corporation published a fascinating report on this topic titled, Truth Decay. You can find it here, should you desire to delve into its 300+ pages. It may be well worth your time.
From a societal perspective, we’re like children playing with communications power tools, wielding them recklessly, intending to do some good, yet harming everyone in our proximity. And because of the incredible reach of our free communications tools that allow anyone to talk to virtually everyone, well, we now have a pretty large proximity.
Perhaps the sheer number of voices that are clamoring for our attention lead those who are extra passionate (or greedy or needy or spiteful) to clamor even more stridently and use even more venomous rhetoric to get attention.
The relative safety of our social media platforms emboldens people to offer highly controversial opinions, or conversely, to “mob” those with controversial opinions. In both cases, there is no need to actually confront anyone, or even use logic. In other words, in today’s race to be perceived as the most virtuous, there is no need for actual courage. Or honesty. Or logic.
So, for at least the foreseeable, short-term future, we must endure the interminable cascade of manufactured outrage and try to sort through the actual facts of the issues at hand. This is no easy task. It seems that most people, regardless of their ideology (and we all have one) are confident that they possess The Truth™, but those darned forces of error (dare we say “lies”?) are powerfully arrayed against them. It has always been thus and is a part of the universal Human Problem, the internet notwithstanding.
James Russell Lowell, one of America’s Fireside Poets, wrestled with this back in 1845. In his meditative masterpiece, “The Present Crisis,” he laments the fact that Truth is “forever on the scaffold,” and Wrong is “forever on the throne.”
In light of this discussion, two questions come to mind: 1) How do we recognize the truth, and 2) How do we live and discourse in light of the onslaught against the truth?
To the first question, we can start by acknowledging that that strongly held convictions are good, but they should be guided by a search for the truth and tempered by love for others. We should be willing to be proven wrong. We must recognize that the pursuit of the truth is a never-ending quest.
When working our way through a social or political issue, we must be able to distinguish between a well-reasoned argument and a carefully crafted personal agenda. An agenda is characterized by a selective use of the facts and a skewed interpretation of the facts. A well-reasoned argument is one that is well-researched, incorporates multiple perspectives, and takes into account its effect on all people, not just a small group.
To the second question, “how do we live and discourse?” the answer is, “civilly.” We need to recognize that truth requires courage. A screed launched into the arena of public discourse via your iPhone from the sheltered grandstand of your car as you transit from one Safe Space to another is a good way to burn down the society you are purportedly trying to improve.
Understand that facts (and their interpretation) may be debated, but we must agree on the facts in order to have a common ground for discourse. Assumptions must be honestly stated. We should attempt to recognize our personal biases (and we all have them). Stereotypes must be acknowledged, confronted, and evaluated. Stereotypes are recognized patterns. They are accurate in many cases, and inaccurate in many others. We must be able to address the facts that have given rise to stereotypes and then realize that individuals should be given a fair evaluation, apart from the stereotype.
So yes, Truth is, in a sense, forever on the scaffold. As soon as humanity confronts one head of the hydra of evil, a batch of new ones crop up. But do not be overwhelmed by the madness and incivility. Be courageous. Seek the truth. Love each other. Take comfort in the fact, that Truth is our greatest ally. I leave you with this final admonition from Lowell. After all, sometimes the poets say it best.
Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,–
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.