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Basic Civility – February 3, 2019

Munch Scream

This is not a new topic, and I don’t have many original ideas on the subject. But I feel I have to comment on the decline in civil discourse in this country in the past few years.

Public discussion has become toxic, especially in the wonderful new social media, which was supposed to open the internet to a free exchange of ideas. And this exchange was supposed to be a good thing. It still is, mostly, in my opinion. The fact that so many people can go on exchange forums like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram tells me that a large portion of our population is literate, interested, able to type, enjoys abundant leisure time, and has access to the internet with a convenient computing device. Those are all positive characteristics in a developed society.

Unfortunately, so many people who participate in social media are also wildly unhappy. For every picture of a pretty sunset or a charming kitten, or a positive comment about life in general, we get reams of political comment laced with vitriol and innuendo. It used to be, in this society, that people with strongly held views could “agree to disagree.” One person might not agree with another’s viewpoint, conclusions, or grasp of basic facts, but that did not invalidate the other person’s basic humanity or his or her right of free speech.

Somewhere along the way, the notion has crept into public discourse that the people who disagree with us are not merely wrong but dangerous and evil. Their thoughts and the supposed actions that will stem from those thoughts—particularly in the voting booth—will damage society, invalidate other people, and poison the planet. Silencing them, stopping them, is not merely a matter of desired public policy but in the interest of saving the world.

When thoughts and their expression become, in your opinion, not merely wrong or ill-considered but an active danger that must be opposed with force of law if not direct physical action, then we are on the slippery slope of fascism. There are many definitions of “fascism,” colored by historical example and political persuasion, but the most basic would be a paradigm under which the public good and presumed public safety outweigh personal freedoms. For the good of the nation, the state, the party, the environment, and people of a particular ethnic, or cultural, or sexual orientation—or whatever else you hold dear—these others must be silenced and prevented a priori from speaking and taking action.

We have already reached a point that, while notions of racial and sexual differences between human beings are held to be equally if not more important than individual achievements and character,1 any mention of those differences is also irredeemably tainted as racist and sexist. We have already reached the point where it is taboo to suggest that all human beings are one kind, one species, with only minor physical differences, and that most differences attributable to “race” are instead cultural—is irredeemably racist. We have already reached the point where it is taboo to suggest that women are in any way different from men, and yet to acknowledge openly that they still need special treatment, such as revised physical standards to perform the rigorous or dangerous jobs traditionally held by men, or particular encouragement to enter academic fields traditionally attended by men—is irredeemably sexist.

Now we have a movement to deny that gender, the condition of being either male or female, is binary but instead to insist that human sexual orientation and, presumably, physical and emotional characteristics as well, are represented by a spectrum of possibilities. More, that these possibilities are not fixed but instead are fluid and subject to change with the opinion and preference of the person stating his or her or its or their identity. This is personal freedom that has run off the cliff and into the thin air. And yet people are willing to scream that this is so and to denigrate2 anyone who denies it as “sexist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” or some other irredeemably bad thing.

Aside from the fact that our society, especially in the most educated, literate, technologically sophisticated, and vocal segments of the population, has gone crazy, this current level of civil discourse tells me we have a lot of truly unhappy people here. Our best and brightest people seem to be suffering huge existential angst, despite the fact that we live in a country that has never been richer, freer, or more advantaged. We have more and better food, access to education and information, access to medical advances and health care, access to energy resources and computing power assigned to personal use, access to housing and transportation, entertainment, and every other human comfort than in any other country today and in any other human society throughout history. But we’re still unhappy.

Perhaps it’s because we have so much that is so readily available without our having to work too hard for it, that we can imagine the last unobtained one percent of such availability and access and so cry for physical and existential perfection. Why can’t everything be freely available right now? If a person can imagine this condition of perfection, in the most advanced society in the world, then why can’t he or she (or it or they) have it?

As someone raised since childhood not to cry for the Moon, because I’m simply not going to get it, I find this level of discourse to be borderline insane. It is also useless and ugly. But there we are …

The only good thing I can say is that most of the people you meet in the street, rather than online, are still basically civil. Casual encounters in the grocery store with, say, two carts contending in a narrow aisle, are generally resolved with a smile and one party giving way. Casual encounters on the street with, say, two cars meeting at a stop sign, are generally settled with a wave. We haven’t devolved into fistfights in Safeway and rammings on the freeway. So we still have some basic civility in physical life.

But if this trend of dehumanization towards people of different opinions, stations in life, and complexions doesn’t change, we may end up in a war zone both online and in the streets.

1. That old content of character vs. color of skin thing, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., described.

2. And yes, sigh, that word is probably considered racist because of the four letters at its core, although it comes from a Latin root meaning simply “to blacken.”