Where Has Civil Discourse Gone?

In the last 24 hours, I have heard a former President of the United States say that all those of us who attended a Tea Party and disagree with President Obama are racist, and read scathing, hateful letters sent to my congressional representative, Jeff Flake (R – Arizona), because he broke ranks with the Republican Party and voted to reprimand Representative Joe Wilson for calling President Obama a liar.

Where has civil discourse gone?

I am very much opposed to most of the political policies being fostered by President Obama and the Democratic Party, but why can’t we debate these issues in a civilized manner? Why can’t we seek to find common ground and then with passion, fervor and logic, state our respective cases without sinking to vitriol and hate?

Certainly not all attendees at tea parties are racist any more than all Democrats are communist.  Why do politicians, pundits and ordinary people too often espouse those broad, vindictive generalities? Can we not can find a way to disagree with our President without decorating a picture of him with a Hitler moustache or a Joker blackface?  Can we not express a difference of opinion with folks in a Tea Party protest without labeling them as a racist mob?

In his book Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes, Gordon B. Hinckley wrote:

“Civility carries with it the essence of courtesy, politeness, and consideration of others.  All the education and accomplishments in the world will not count for much unless they are accompanied by marks of gentility, of respect for others, of going the extra mile.”

We are fellow citizens of the greatest nation in the world. One of the most precious freedoms we enjoy is the freedom of expression.  We always have and always will have wide differences of opinion.  But I sincerely hope will we dig deep within ourselves, recognize each other as the brothers and sisters we truly are, and learn how to restore civility to our society.

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9 thoughts on “Where Has Civil Discourse Gone?

  1. Mark,

    Great post. I saw yesterday that the house has issued ‘rules and guidance’ for what can and cannot be said on the floor of the House of Representatives. It disgusts me that free speech has been muzzled on the floor of the greatest democratic institution in the World. So not only can you not debate, what you can debate and what you can say is now under the scrutiny of those who are elected to protect our freedoms.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I share your concerns about our freedom of speech being in jeopardy. Another over-reach of government power, I believe.

  3. I very much agree with your concern over the lack of civility in public discourse, but I think you’ve mischaracterized what President Carter said. He did not say that all “who attended a Tea Party and disagree with President Obama are racist.”

    What Carter actually said is: “I think that an overwhelming proportion of the intensely-demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, he’s African-American.”

    I suspect he chose his words very carefully. If you limit his claim, as he did, to only those that “intensely” demonstrate “animosity”–e.g., comparing him to Hitler, calling him a zoo animal, uppity, a Joker blackface, etc.–it seems quite likely that, within this segment, there is a significant level of racism. Out side this segment–those who discuss policy difference with civility–Carter makes no claim of racism.

    And why should this surprise us? It has not been that long since a black man could be lynched for back talking, had separate drinking fountains, rode at the back of the bus. While we have come a very long, long way in the past few decades (we have, after all, just elected a black president), it is unrealistic to suggest that racism is gone from our society. The first black students were escorted into some schools by armed guards; the first black baseball players could not eat in the same restaurants. Did anyone really expect the first black president of the United States to glide through the first months of his first term in office without stirring up any latent racism from any corner of the country?

    I think President Carter chose is words carefully and called out an elephant in the room. Racism is not (yet) completely gone.

  4. Andy:

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments. I agree that President Carter chose his word carefully, but it certainly seemed to me that in context, he was condemning the Tea Party march on Washington as predominately motivated by the fact that President Obama is black – which would be racism. While it was very apparent that there were fringe elements who overtly showed their racism through posters and rhetoric, I do not believe the overwhelming majority of the Tea Party activists are motivated by race. Their concern, which I share, is that the government under President Obama’s leadership is stepping way beyond its Constitutional limits in deficit spending and regulating the lives of the citizens. That is not racism.



  5. My take on Carter is a little different. I took him to be focused only on the those who, as you say, “overtly showed their racism through posters and rhetoric.” I also took his remarks to not be limited to the Tea Party march but rather to any place such “intensely-demonstrated animosity” occurred… town hall meetings, commentaries, and, of course, those fringe elements within the Tea Party march. Under this interpretation, I find myself agreeing with Carter. And, like you, I find myself asking, “Where has civil discourse gone?”

  6. Thanks again for sharing your views. Our little exchange here shows that people with differing viewpoints can, indeed, engage in civil discourse. That is good! Please keep in touch.

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