What Happened to Civil Discourse?
Reclaiming a foundation of democracy
As a child in a rural Maine public school, I learned about
the nuanced discussions of democracy from the ancient Greeks through the
One afternoon, a civics teacher invoked an image of a French woman from an earlier era holding a lively political discussion in a café. “Politics should not be vitriolic or boring,” our teacher told us. “We should enjoy political discussions and consider them an essential part of the culture of a democratic society.”
This election cycle, I find this memory returning as I interact online and in person. Why is it so hard for us to have a passionate—not scornful or vituperative—conversation about politics? Has respectful discourse, like civics, fallen by the wayside of American education? Are we trained only in argument, attack, humiliation, screeching, vilifying, fear mongering and other forms of verbal abuse?
Discourse is the foundation of democracy. The ability to have a respectful and informed conversation about politics—in the post office, our homes, on the media, with friends, family or with total strangers—is essential for a society that prizes the ideals of liberty and freedom.
If we are not free to converse without being verbally assaulted, insulted and screamed at, what does that say about the content of our character? Is it really so hard to engage in the practices of being curious about our differences, asking questions, listening and responding in a sane and civil manner?
One political action every American should take between now and November is to lift our heads with dignity and treat our fellow Americans with respect.