Civility in Public Discourse

Only by pride cometh contention. – Proverbs 13:10

Like most LDS, I spent the last weekend watching General Conference (or as I affectionately call it, "Church in your PJ's Weekend"). As usual, Elder Holland delivered a powerful speech, this one on the power of words. He bemoaned how easily we can and do use words to harm one another, even more powerfully than the use of physical violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of political discourse.

I can tell you through extensive involvement in the political process (3 runs for public office and 2 county chairmanships of a third party) that things have definitely been sliding downhill at a frightening pace. Not coincidentally, this slide towards lowest common denominator politics has occurred as the Internet has become more commonplace and publishing one's own thoughts has become easier than thinking before posting. We can write and post an angry missive before we've had a chance to calm down and consider what it is we are saying. Because of our pride, we are slow to admit fault and take responsibility for our indiscretions online. These same indiscretions are usually permanently archived and easily found using Google, leaving a burning trail of our worst moments available to whomever has the time to search for them.

Sadly, there are many individuals who revel in their barbed tongues, celebrate their vast library of profanity and delight in causing contentions with "the other side". They may be individuals like Ann Coulter or Michael Savage. They may be a collaborative work of groupthink like DailyKos. Even in our own backyard, One Utah frequently puts on a stunning show of hot-button words, demeaning remarks and endless swearing bound to turn off everyone but the choir they continually preach to. They all have something in common: reflexive anger. It doesn't take much to get them worked into a frenzy and by golly they won't waste any time to let us know how angry they are.

This bad attitude from a small but vocal minority has spilled its way into mainstream political discussions. The merits and detriments of any given law, policy or bill can no longer be debated or discussed rationally. Such discussions rapidly devolve into character assassinations, straw man arguments, gross hyperbole and outright lying. Because each of the extremes on any given issue are, in essence, trying to shout down the other side, anyone in the middle is drowned out by refusing to stoop to such childish behavior. Paradoxically, this means that those who need to be heard won't do what it takes to overpower the other groups.

The rancor can only get worse the deeper into party politics you go. Principles that are espoused on the surface are quickly discarded in leadership meetings for the sake of obtaining more power. Again, the vocal minority of the party screams so loudly that party power structures dare not upset them for fear of losing a "base". This completely disregards that such people are, in fact, a minority and do not speak for most of America. These minorities include the "evangelical right" and the "angry left", neither of which is anything more than a group of rabid zealots more interested in advancing every piece of minutia in their own personal Gospel than with getting things done. In their quest for ideological purity, they make the extreme into mainstream to convince anyone who will listen that the other side is always out to get you.

It all leads back to a prideful attitude of being right instead of doing right. In the unending quest to never admit being wrong, we are selling ourselves short by refusing to acknowledge that we might not know everything or could have possibly made mistakes. Muhammad Ali was dead on when he said "A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life."

We each need to make a personal commitment to avoid using angry language, to stay away from hot button words, to disagree without being disagreeable, to think before we type, to carefully consider if what we are espousing is insightful or inciteful. If enough of us try, we just might be able to drown out the bad juju coming out of those who choose the low road.

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6 Responses to Civility in Public Discourse

  1. Bobbie says:

    Thank you, while that talk hit me hard on Saturday I had already forgotten it.

  2. Sherpa says:

    This conference talk from last year is another reminder about this subject.

    http://lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,49-1-602-30,00.html

  3. Jeremy says:

    Amen to this post and Elder Holland’s talk. The internet should be a friendly place whether we agree or disagree.

  4. Reach Upward says:

    Thanks for the much-needed sermon. I learn when people call me on my own forays into “character assassinations, straw man arguments, gross hyperbole.”

  5. Bill Fox says:

    It was a good talk and is especially needed on the internet where bullies abound. On a side note: if you really want to effect what is going on in politics. You need to drop the 3rd party thing as you will always be on the outside looking in. I believe changes need to be made from the inside. Although I don’t agree with everything about RG., his being on the inside has made a difference and if he’d been in a 3rd party you would never have heard of him

  6. mel says:

    Jesse, exactement.(That’s French. I don’t know how to say exactly in Italian.) I have been a perpetrator and a victim, and I agree with you whole-heartedly. It took me 6 years of involvement in politics, and several very painful mistakes to learn this lesson. Good man,
    — aunt mel

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