With much ado over intemperate and ill-thought remarks by a prominent radio personality recently, it is even more critical than ever to raise a loud call for increased civility in public discourse.
This is not to say that voices filled with passion should be stifled in the public square -- free speech is free speech. However, we should never mistake passionate prose for an idea based in logic or heated words a silver bullet to inspire enlightenment. Disrespectful discourse can distract and cause us to spend our time focused more on the messenger than the content of the message, putting a road block in the way of moving the debate forward.
Bullying clearly is not an issue confined to childhood playgrounds, but one that unfortunately too often finds space within the political circuses that seek to advance our society. No matter your party affiliation, we should hope our future generations are able to enter the public market of ideas fully and without fear of personal attacks and irrelevant discourse.
I think of myself as conservative, yet as of late, I am on occasion offended by rhetoric from both ends of the political spectrum. I find comfort in the words of the recently departed, eminent scholar James Q. Wilson, "it would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics; that is, people who thought it was hard, though not impossible, to make useful and important changes in public policy. However, to do this we must spend less time on the side shows filled with oddities and more time admiring the quality of skill required to perform in the center ring.
One can never win permanent friends and obtain permanent influence over people, both of which the left and the right should be seeking to accomplish, by blinding the audience with distractions and dissonance just to win out the headline of the day. Daily doses of venom may make us immune to the snake, but they also alter our own perceptions over time of who we wish to be and how we know we should act. C.S. Lewis stated we are what we believe we are and unless we demand more of ourselves, we cannot expect to receive more from those who seek to lead the discussions. We must demand society raise the bar of expectations in public discourse.
In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote these words: "You have to be careful and not let your political struggles take over your life, your affections your soul." She was speaking of a conversation she had with the late Andrew Breitbart and the column was aptly called, "People Are More Than Their Political Selves." Right or left, popular politicos too easily become the consummate hucksters that envelop society these days, letting their message play second fiddle to their personas, all to the peril of honest debate and constructive ideas.
In 1978 Marshall McLuhan stated in his famous book, The Medium is the Massage, that the news automatically becomes the real world for the TV user and is not a substitute for reality, but is itself an immediate reality."In this age of new media, our young ones are bombarded with many characters, as McLuhan warns, one of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload making it easy for them to walk away influenced by the words themselves instead of their purpose. When extreme speech and name calling not only enter the forum but take control of it, we are consumed by the power of the words used rather than the content of the ideas. Speech becomes both the message and the massage. When we launch beyond rational discourse and are forced to focus on unrestrained speech, we only serve to add publicity to the one doing the spewing; likely something he seeks in the first place, and we add to the noise that envelops us every day.
There is debate about the origin of this quote, With great power comes great responsibility. But, those who lead societys debates should forget the messenger and take to heart the message, letting it guide them as they seek to influence. Society advances when using the essential tenets of conservatism and common customs of civility. Society loses when the debate becomes vile and we fail to elevate our discourse. We are better as people when we focus on true issues and ignore those who abandon logic, reason, and civility while seeking to knock our sights off the necessary targets.
Ed Moore, Ph.D., is president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.