Wanted: A Revival of Civil Discourse

by Joseph DeVitis

edited 7/4/09

Joseph DeVitis is a professor of education at The Georgia College and State University, Georgia's public liberal arts university. Professor DeVitis deals here with both the depth and breadth of the American consensus.[endnote]

Unless you are Rip Van Winkle, you have doubtless noted that America is losing its voices of reason -- those who stand for thoughtful, analytical and civil discourse and seek to go beyond shrill, superficial hollering. The decline in civil, rational dialogue is noticeable in local, state and national arenas with regards to politics.

It seems as though we are neglecting many serious substantive issues that beset our nation because it is easier to talk past one another. Depending upon one's entrenched ideology, we click on CNN, FOX or MNSBC. We wait to see and hear talking heads that agree with our own points of view. We read newspapers, magazines and Web sites that cater to our cherished perspectives. It should seem that there is little productivity in simply patting ourselves on the back, shouting at our opponents and watching as the parade of social, economic and international ills passes us by. We salute those who think like us and vilify those who think differently.

We must learn and remember to keep in practice efforts to discuss, and not just gear up to fight. Can we stop impugning individuals and their motives for whatever stance they take? Does our political argument have to pummel our purported foes to the point that they have no chance to rise again? Can we cease bathing ourselves in bitterness, anger or fear?

It will take time and effort to heal our wounds, to gently look each other in the eye and see "the other" as an equally free citizen who might want to engage in mutual problem-solving. It is through that means that we may actually be surprised to see real and concrete solutions develop -- as it often takes thoughts and opinions from all facets to do so. And each of us will have to earn the title of "responsible citizen" once again. As former Texas Congressman Martin Frost said recently, "The level of discourse in this country is falling to a depth that cannot be sustained."

If we want to preserve and nourish a democratic form of government, our rancorous verbal assaults must be replaced by an ocean of reflective reason, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that is lively, profound and civil.

Our political discourse has become a sea of incivility. We tend to forget that we are united by principles that are historic, deep and broad. While we may not always agree on how to live by those principles and how to translate them into policies, the values we share are often greater than we sometimes admit. We need to look at what unites us at least as often as we talk about what divides us.


[endnote] for more detail on breadth and depth of consensus see "The Nature of Consensus" at http://www.newfoundations.com/Consensus/NatureConsensus.html