Is civility dead? It sure seems so. In recent years, the quality of discourse in America has declined dramatically. Rarely in discussions of any import these days, whether politics, religion, the economy, education, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the list goes on, is there a respectful exchange of ideas. Instead, such interactions are either one-sided or full of ad hominem attacks or self-serving misinformation.
Examples of those who lead the "incivility movement" are easy to come by. On the right, there's Congressman Joe "You lie" Wilson, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and, of course, the Three Horsemen of the Conservative Apocalypse, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly.
And just so you don't think that those on the left are holier than thou, you have Congressman Alan Grayson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and even, occasionally, Vice President Joe Biden. All are media darlings because they all make great copy. And they are quietly encouraged by the establishment. Their indiscreet comments and coronary-inducing rants go viral through new media such as YouTube and Twitter. They energize the base. And, especially for liberals, the latter provocateurs show that they are tough and aren't going to be kicked around by those conservative bullies.
You might ask, so what? Why is civility so important? So what if they're a little rude? It sure makes good theater (and ratings), doesn't it?
But civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those strictures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of their consequences.
What has caused such vitriol in what is now our uncivil discourse? Are passions any more intense than they were in past generations? I don't think so. Is there more political polarization than in the past? It sure looks that way, yet research indicates that there has been little movement in political views in recent decades.
Perhaps there has always been uncivil discourse, but, because of the limits in the size of the audience that it could reach, we rarely heard it. How times have changed. Due to the emergence of cable television, talk radio, and Internet, "squeaky wheels" now have a means of making their voices heard by millions. The cable news channels and talk radio have given a soapbox to self-righteous egomaniacs who incite the lunatic fringe with impunity, have little regard for the facts, and no real concern for an actual discussion of the issues. The Internet has provided a very large megaphone to anyone who wishes to express their opinion.
Maybe uncivil discourse is the price we pay for freedom of speech. Better uncivil discourse than no discourse at all.
So is there any hope of a return to civil discourse? I'm not very optimistic. We can only hope that those who reside somewhere within the less noisy confines of the political middle continue to speak their minds - civilly, of course - and don't let the cacophony from the fringes drown out reasoned and respectful dialogue.