Friday, June 15, 2007

Civility in the Commons

While writing about the acute issue of the conservative side of the debate concerning immigration reform, Jonah Goldberg wrote:
The beauty of a democratic system is that it depends on democratic arguments. Even if every partisan is a villain, he has to make his case in a way that will convince people. And it's those arguments we're supposed to be dealing with. It's very easy for me to say that while my opponent may say X that he secretly believes Y because he is a member of a supersecret Satanic cabal or because his fern is speaking to him through his dental fillings. But unless I have proof, debate should be confined to X.
Dale Light adds:
He's right. We should be debating ideas, not attacking people or indulging sick conspiracy fantasies, but increasingly we don't, and it is important that rather than simply denouncing this disturbing tendency, we begin to ask why.

Historically speaking such things are characteristic of people and groups who are, or perceive themselves to be, powerless. It is telling that in these times so many people, of all political stripes, should feel that the powers that be are not only out of touch with, but actively hostile to, the best interests of the American people. In part this would seem to reflect the increasingly undemocratic nature of modern political institutions. In part it derives from the common, and to my mind accurate, perception that the major institutions that emerged in the Twentieth Century to organize our society are increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional and that they function to serve the interests of a narrow segment of our society.

These are things I have been thinking about a lot in recent years and to which I intend to return time and again in this forum. For now it is enough to point out, as Jonah Goldberg has, that a mode of discourse that formerly was a marginal element in our political culture has now become so widespread that it is manifested throughout the political spectrum, and that is something to worry about.
I can't help thinking that the "one bad apple..." canard also applies. The average Jill or Joe sees the "snipe and snark" and gets even more turned off. Then again, it may not be the "snipe and snark" so much as the language used: profanity-for-its-own-sake and the constant issuing of the same hyperbolic cliches (Bush=Hitler, Liberals are Commies, etc.). Responsible and respectable debate doesn't have to be boring, and it doesn't require ad hominem for spice. But I guess that, in a world where everyone is a pundit, the bar gets lowered. Rhetorical levelling, if you will.

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