Our Princeton University contributor, Arielle Gorin, weighs in with an incisive essay on the low level of public discourse these days.
WALKING STICKS AND RHETORIC: PREVENTING INCIVILITY IN POLITICAL DISCOURSE by Arielle Gorin
On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston S. Brooks strode into the U.S. Senate chamber, approached the desk of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, denounced a fiery anti-slavery speech the senator had made two days earlier, and promptly beat Sumner unconscious with his cane. The incident—nowadays regarded as nothing more than a bizarre bit of historical trivia--can actually be viewed as an extreme example of the consequences of incivility in political discourse. Political rhetoric had become so emotional and ad hominem in the turbulent pre-Civil War decade (in Sumner’s aforementioned speech, he had mocked a speech impediment of Brooks’ uncle—an author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act—several times), that participants literally came to blows.
Fortunately, we haven’t had any canings in the Senate in recent years. However, dialogue in the modern political realm is beginning to rival 1850’s-era rhetoric in terms of invective and incivility. The Global Language Monitor, an organization that “documents, analyzes and tracks trends in language the world over,” concluded in a recent study that incivility in political discourse has reached dismaying levels. The organization’s president, Paul J.J. Payack, commented that “not since the Civil War era, when President Lincoln was frequently depicted by adversaries as a gangly, gaping baboon, has the discourse sunken to such a profane level."
At the vanguard of this modern increase in incivility are not walking stick-wielding congressmen, but fiery pundits and media commentators such as conservative columnist Ann Coulter and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. Often relying on angry accusations and shock-value to promote themselves—Coulter has asserted that “even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do,” while Moore has called Republican politicians “conniving, thieving, smug pricks”—such pundits have enjoyed great success and notoriety in recent years. Their fame and success has, in turn, tugged the entire political arena in their direction. To adapt a phrase from the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who spoke of “defining deviancy downwards,” firebrands such as Coulter and Moore are defining civility downwards.
This trend is not only distasteful, but also potentially deadly to the very purpose of political discussion and debate. Consequently, it is the duty of intelligent, politically aware citizens everywhere to withdraw support for the firebrands, even those with whom they agree policy-wise. We must deny Coulter, Moore, et al. their very lifeblood—the fame and attention they desperately seek—and thus minimize their influence in the political arena.
The word “politics” comes from the Greek polis, which means a city-state or a collection of individuals—essentially, a society. Politics concerns the ordering and governing of such a society. Thus, the goal of political discourse is to determine how such ordering and governing is best accomplished. Ideally, then, all political dialogue and debate would point to this goal, would be conducted for the purpose of discovering what is true about how societies function and should function, and what is the right way to go about achieving the kind of society we have determined we should strive for. Of course, ideals are not always attainable; clearly, things other than the quest for the true and the right come into play in political discourse, such as individuals’ desires for power and fame. Nevertheless, as participants in society—as members of the polis—both duty and self-interest dictate that we should attempt to guide political discourse toward its ultimate purpose.
Firebrands, however, steer political discourse away from this purpose. Instead of being concerned with the true and the right, they focus on the best way to shock and insult and outrage. Their penchant for ad hominem attacks on opponents—harping on Bill Clinton’s affairs or George W. Bush’s grammatical missteps, for example—diverts the country’s attention from the merits or shortcomings of these politicians’ stances, and instead sparks national mudslinging sessions, which leave everyone covered in grime and leave no one closer to understanding the right set of policies for the country or the truth about how government should function. In other words, the firebrands often sling invective instead of ideas, even though ideas are the purpose of political discourse. As Edwin J. Feulner, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, has commented: “What we see today, I am afraid, is an accelerating competition between the left and the right to see which side can inflict the most damage with the hammer of incivility. Increasingly, those who take part in public debates appear to be exchanging ideas when, in fact, they are trading insults: idiot, liar, moron, traitor.”
Even when there is something substantial beneath the mud—solid logic or coherent positions—the style in which the firebrands present their positions often turns off opponents from considering their ideas. In other words, when ideas are presented in a strident and offensive manner, the skeptical public often discards the message with the messenger, rather than realizing that there is merit to the ideas themselves. Further, the firebrands’ strident style often creates such an angry and polarized political atmosphere that a synthesis of opposing ideas becomes impossible; even if the best course of action were some combination of the policies promoted by Coulter and Moore, such a coming together would be impossible, since the two pundits’ angry, provocative styles engender such hatred between the camps. As the famous 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “There is no truth without humility.” Quite simply, humility requires a person to acknowledge that he might be wrong and the other side might be right. Unfortunately, the firebrands’ angry condemnations of their opponents preclude any such humility, and thus hinder the quest for the truth about how best to govern a country.
Another consequence of the firebrands’ provocative and sometimes offensive styles is that they chase more reasonable and civil participants from the political realm. In regards to professional pundits, the flashy and provocative firebrands steal the limelight from their more courteous but less flamboyant counterparts, giving these civil pundits less airtime in the media marketplace of commentary. In regards to part-time or amateur commentators—those who simply enjoy a good political discussion or write an occasional letter to the editor--the domination of the firebrands causes civil and courteous citizens to become disgusted with the realm of political discourse and seek other occupations.
To quote Feulner again, “Many people withdraw and tune out [when they encounter incivility]. . .This is the real danger of incivility. Our free, self-governing society requires an open exchange of ideas, which in turn requires a certain level of civility rooted in mutual respect for each other’s opinions and viewpoints.”
One rarely heard, but at first glance convincing, defense of the firebrands is that pundits like Coulter and Moore provide a sort of catharsis for their followers. That is, perhaps politically aware individuals who accumulate pent-up frustration and anger at those who promote seemingly destructive policies can “get it out of their system” by reading or listening to the firebrands. In reading Coulter’s book Slander or watching Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, individuals are able (so the hypothesis goes) to vicariously vent their anger. Perhaps this mental purging of annoyance and frustration is a healthy process.
However, at least two things prevent the process of patronizing the firebrands from qualifying as a catharsis. First of all, a catharsis must entail a person’s acknowledging that the thing he is purging from himself is undesirable—in this case, the viewer of a Moore film or its equivalent must realize that the anger which he is able to vent by watching such a film is a negative thing, something he would have been better off never having accumulated in the first place. However, followers of the firebrands—to the contrary—tend to revel in their outrage, and tend to revere the firebrand for his or her skill at expressing such outrage, at “sticking it to” the enemy.
Secondly, a catharsis must entail getting rid of the acknowledged undesirable thing, rather than increasing it; specifically, the reader of a Coulter column or its equivalent must eventually feel less anger and outrage than he did before reading such a column. However, this is clearly not the case; the work of the firebrands is intended to increase outrage, not eliminate it. In this sense, patronizing Coulter, Moore, etc. can be viewed more as a feedback loop than a catharsis; a person brings his own anger or frustration into the process, and exits feeling even more outraged than before.
What, then, can we do to combat the effects of the firebrands’ angry rhetoric? Clearly, censorship is not a viable option. As well as violating the First Amendment, such a restriction of free speech would entail an even more direct and lethal blow to our political system than the firebrands’ rants. And clearly, a polite request that such pundits tone down the invective would have little effect; their capacity to outrage and grab headlines is the very reason they are famous and successful, and they are unlikely to give the game up simply because some people dislike their style. No, what is needed now is nothing less than a good, old-fashioned boycott. It must be a special kind of boycott, however: we must withdraw our attention as well as our pocketbooks. That is, in addition to not purchasing the firebrands’ books or viewing their films, we—politically aware, involved citizens though we may be--must not write letters to the editor about the firebrands, or start web sites devoted to them, or attend their public appearances. As with a child who misbehaves to get attention, the best policy is simply to ignore the firebrands. Publicity is their currency, their lifeblood, and by denying them the fame and attention they crave, we render them impotent.
It won’t be easy, of course. The passionate, fiery side of us may very well enjoy the firebrands who agree with us, and when we encounter firebrands who disagree with us, we may very well feel the need to disagree publicly with their outrageous and provocative statements. But that’s exactly what they want. Firebrands thrive just as much on being hated as loved; again notoriety is the main thing for which they strive. Thus, for the sake of our political discourse, of our society, of our quest to know what policies and ideologies are true and right, we must combat the firebrands by ignoring them. It’s the only way to stop them.
Until then, look out for congressmen with walking sticks.
“August PQ Index: Trash Talk Tops the Buzzword List
.” The Global Language Monitor., 2004.
Feulner, Edwin J. “Lay Your Hammer Down.” Hillsdale College Commencement
Address. <http://www.hillsdale.edu/newimprimis/2004/july/julyPrintable.htm>, 2004.
“Charles Sumner.” Wikipedia Encyclopedia.
“Michael Moore Quotes.” Brainy Quote.
Freedland, Jonathan. “An Appalling Magic.” The Guardian. , 2003.