Who knew that this would happen? I started this blog entry Wednesday, January 5th. It was not the first time I had thought it, but that day I felt that I had to address how our public discourse has gotten out of control. Republicans were flexing their muscles as they took over the house, The Smithsonian and National Public Radio both seemed to be pulling in their horns in anticipation of battles to cut their funding, and perhaps most importantly discussion on a TESOL listserv resulted in outright uncivil discussion when a member wished to express his opinion on immigration and the Dream Act.
Now in Tucson, five are dead and 14 wounded—one an independent-minded U.S. senator fighting for her life with a bullet through her head because of some crazy, who no matter what else you can or cannot say, was wound up about the constitution.
This is the likely consequence of a society (and a media environment), which for the sake of excitement, drama, and an attitude of “win at all costs,” has increasingly pushed boundaries and disregarded what was considered civil discourse.
Do you doubt it? It’s been a year and a half since Joe Wilson, a South Carolina congressman shouted out “Liar!” to U.S. President Obama during a major policy speech. Last week during the reading of the constitution at the opening of the senate, a member of the audience in the gallery screamed, “Except Obama...Jesus help us,” in response to the reading of the clause on who may be president.
It has not always been this way. There are many students of the first amendment who insist that its intent was not to allow any yahoo to say whatever popped into his mind at any time in any forum (although we enshrine open speech better than many societies).
The traditional reading of the first amendment says that while everyone has a right to a public forum, not everyone has right to an equal public forum. For example, I cannot make my opinions heard in all the venues that the president of the United States has at his disposal.
To expand your public forum, establishing your bona fides is important. An example in academic writing is citing sources. The primary purpose of citation is to show that you’ve done your homework—that your reasoning is based on evidence: that you have read and can use the authority established by those who came before you. (We can think of Newton’s quote, “If I have seen far it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants.”) If you want to have the right to express your opinion, you have to establish that you have first done your homework and that you understand what has come before.
In the past, access to public forums was relatively limited. For example, when the printing press ruled, it often acted as a gatekeeper. Not always fair, not always impartial, but press could determine who was allowed public voice, and it was held that the press was varied enough that if someone attempted to quiet an important voice, there were others who would decide it should be heard.
These days we have lost our systems of vetting whose voice is heard. It’s democratic, but it’s also with few controls. No need to make the case for your argument, simply post what you feel. If others feel the same way they’ll pick it up and parrot it too, whether or not there’s a whit of evidence or authority behind it. Think about the recently debunked urban myth of vaccinations causing autism.
Public speech has become a participant sport where everyone is allowed to push, shout, and shove. We wouldn’t tolerate some aging high school jock insisting on going out and playing pro ball, but we seem to be willing to give any reality show personality just off the street equal footing with our most experienced people and best minds—just because it's fun to watch.
It’s frightening. How loudly and dramatically can you shout? No need for evidence, or establishing that one has made a commitment to a position. Let’s have your side scream at my side. It’s as exciting as a football match. Back in 1998, Deborah Tannen described it as the “Argument Culture” in her book by the same name. Every position has to have an opposing position and that opposing position, no matter whether it represents a single person, needs to get equal time. That’s how media gins up excitement.
But we are losing middle ground, losing openness, and losing objectivity. We are shouting so loudly we can no longer bother to think about what others are saying.
There is an easy fix. It probably not exciting enough to get much traction, but it is an easy fix. Many of you teaching English these days, regardless of your student audience, are increasingly asked not only to teach English but to also develop your students’ critical thinking skills. You’ve become good at it. Now, all we all need to do is to make a New Year’s resolution to practice critical thinking skills ourselves.
Here’s my list of the steps to achieving this resolution:
- Strive to think before you talk/write/text.
- Make it a point of pride to always respect your listener (because if your listener feels disrespected, you can be sure your message will be lost).
- Argue based on reason. That means:
- striving to be objective
- providing evidence
- giving examples
- citing established authorities or precedents
- Anticipating and respecting other possible opinions
- Abandoning “scorched earth” approaches to establishing your position. Win a few, lose a few, and we’ll all respect each other more.
We must reestablish civil public discourse. There are too many people on this planet, too many wars, and too few resources to indulge in saying whatever we want. We have to listen carefully and speak judiciously, or our children will inherit nothing but discord.
Please, make your 2011 resolution to insist on and practice civil discourse. Model it and teach it to others. It is a language in which all of us must develop fluency.