As I have written about several times (here and here and here), the blogosphere and, more generally, the "politicosphere" has gotten pretty darned ugly these days. Gone are the days of passionate though reasoned discourse and respectful disagreement. Where the focus was on the common good, practical solutions, and where differences could be worked out and compromises reached.
Welcome to the mixed martial arts cage matches of our modern political culture in which, on television, radio, the Web, and in the once hallowed halls of government, it is no-holds-barred and anything goes. Where the focus is on self-interest, ideology, and demonization of those with whom we disagree. And where the tone is angry, mean-spirited, dogmatic, insulting, and profoundly disrespectful.
The question is whether this decidedly uncivil form of discourse is truly harmful to our political system.
Several commenters on previous posts have contended that, historically and internationally, such raucous exchanges have been the norm and our current tone is no different. But to equate the exchanges found in, say, the English Parliament, with our present tone is akin to likening a slingshot to an atomic bomb, given the vehemence, volume, and sheer number that are a part of the current politicosphere.
Some commenters have maintained that this tone is the price we pay for more ways to express our First Amendment right to freedom of speech; more people have a soapbox to stand on than ever before. Certainly, when more people have a voice, there will be more engagement by citizens and that makes for a more open and vibrant democracy.
I agree that the new media has been a boon to sharing ideas in the politicosphere. Ideally, much like a volleyball game, the goal should be to receive ideas and then volley them back until one side can't return them. Unfortunately, the ever-expanding universe of new media has given rise to an industry of misinformation and anger, the goal of which is to repel ideas that conflict with one's own and lob ideological hand grenades back with the intention of destroying the enemy. Passionate debates have morphed into fierce battles bent on ideological domination.
Others make the case that anger is healthy because it is motivating and can catalyze political change. That is hard to disagree with if you look at the civil rights and anti-war movements. The current anger expressed by the Tea Party movement has already had an impact on American politics. And, as one commenter noted, better an enraged rant on a blog than a gun or bomb. But fury that is unfocused and misdirected, as much of the current anger is, can do more harm than good, acting to polarize people and sever lines of communication.
In sum, though these points all seem reasonable, they do not, I believe, justify the current direction we are heading in our politicosphere.
In my discussions advocating civil political discourse, I am often accused of encouraging timid or politically correct discussion, people to surrender their beliefs in the name of accommodation, or to just be more agreeable; that is how many people interpret 'civil.' But civility, for me, involves treating others with dignity ("Do unto other...") and engaging in substantive discourse that is, at the same time, vigorous and honest, and respectful and reasoned. As I noted in a previous post, my basic rule of discourse is that if you wouldn't say it to someone's face or in front your grandmother, don't say it.
I draw the line between civil and uncivil political discourse when someone moves from a focus on substance to a focus on the person. I also draw the line when passion for an issue turns into anger and insult directed at the person (think of all the name calling that goes on in the politicosphere). The current politicosphere has lost respect, reason, and tolerance. Can a civilized culture remain so in their absence? I don't think so.