I remember growing up in the 1970s and watching the popular “Point/ Counterpoint” segment that would run every Sunday evening at the end of the “60 Minutes” television broadcast. Over the course of three short minutes, Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick would debate the issues of the day.
As a kid, I thought that the debates were spirited and, for the time, even a bit spicy. No matter how contentious the topic, however, the exchange between Alexander and Kilpatrick was always respectful and never personal. This weekly feature became so popular that it was eventually spoofed by “Saturday Night Live” comedians, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin.
A lot has changed in 40 years. No matter where you turn, there seems to be a degree of hostility and resentment in every corner of the universe. Beyond just differences over political ideologies, there is a palpable rancor in our society over everything from the type of vehicle you drive, where you go to church and the gender with which you identify.
Until somewhat recently, we lived in a world where each of us could simply “agree to disagree” with those who had a different worldview and go our separate ways. Today, the expression of your personal beliefs could easily lead you to being canceled, boycotted or physically attacked. Civility, as we once knew it, is a relic belonging to a bygone era.
I suppose there are many causes for this dramatic change in our culture and the ways in which we treat one another.
The most often blamed source of this polarization is politics and, more importantly, the politicians who find themselves in the spotlight of our nation’s decaying mass media.
The worst offenders may be former President Donald Trump and Congresswomen Maxine Waters, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sheila Jackson Lee. Until recently, most of what these politicians would say on a daily basis would not have risen to the standard of what is considered newsworthy. As “tension” has evolved into the most important ingredient in a news story, these bad actors have been allowed to set the tone for the national narrative on political discourse.
The diminished influence of the mass media is also to blame. There was a time when we could rely on media outlets to be the arbiters of truth. There was a time when news networks fulfilled the vital role of watchdogs for the common good.
With the media’s decline came the rise of social media, which introduced a much lower standard for truth-telling. Almost overnight, opinions became facts and Americans began to rely on the musings of anonymous sources, hiding behind their computer screens, for their perspective on the world. Today, truth is nothing more than a lofty and optional goal for the outlets where most Americans get their news.
Of course, there are many other factors contributing to our current state of incivility. As a society, we are stressed out. We’re worried about our economic standing, our schools and the decay of social structures that once were the backbone of American culture. This looming sense of uncertainty in so many aspects of our lives has us on edge. As a result, we’re irritable and punchy.
Complicating matters is the emergence of a generation with an inflated sense of self-worth. We’ve raised a group of kids who received participation trophies no matter how hard they played life’s games. As they become leaders in our communities and in corporate America, their sense of entitlement and perceived injustice has greatly altered their worldview and clouds their decision-making processes.
Then there are the generational differences in the definition and meaning of civility. For many, it’s the benchmark standard for the level of respect we give, unconditionally, to the people we encounter. There’s a level of common courtesy extended to others no matter what the circumstances. If there are differences of opinion, we engage in an honest debate and agree to keep working together toward a common goal that benefits society as a whole.
For others, civility is nothing more than an act of oppression. Being civil to one another is all about maintaining the status quo. When we are civil to each other, we don’t focus on the inequalities that exist in the world today. The best way to change society is to storm the Capitol, burn buildings and interrupt lectures and governmental proceedings with bullhorns, angry chants and pumping fists. Maintaining any sense of decorum or abiding by mutually agreed- upon rules and guidelines has become an affront to the injustices that have been baked into our culture.
It’s been said that the United States is as close to a Civil War as it was when the last one ended in 1865. We’ve lost our ability to find common ground, debate honestly and extend a modicum of respect to those with whom we disagree.
The only hope for our nation is to find leaders who can embrace a new brand of civil discourse where we can leverage our differences into something productive.
Whatever the outcome, we all must be more diligent in thwarting extremists on either side of an issue and come together by focusing our energies on the things that unite us rather than those things which clearly divide us.
It’s a tall order but one worth pursuing.
Fred Parry is the founder and publisher emeritus of Inside Columbia magazine.