Questions on Incivility in Contemporary Politics and Culture

By Dr. Steve Goldzwig

On May 1, 2010 President Barack Obama delivered a commencement address at the University of Michigan. In the address, Obama delivered a rather elegant treatise on incivility. The president noted:

“Sometimes all you hear in Washington is the clamor of politics. And all that noise can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there. So when I took office, I decided that each night I would read 10 letters out of the tens of thousands that are sent to us by ordinary Americans every day— this is my modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place.

Some of the letters make you think — like the one that I received last month from a kindergarten class in Virginia. Now, the teacher of this class instructed the students to ask me any question they wanted. So one asked, “How do you do your job?” Another asked, “Do you work a lot?” (Laughter.) Somebody wanted to know if I wear a black jacket or if I have a beard —(laughter)—so clearly they were getting me mixed up with the other tall guy from Illinois. (Laughter.) And one of my favorites was from a kid who wanted to know if I lived next to a volcano. (Laughter.) I’m still trying to piece the thought process on this one. (Laughter.) Loved this letter.

But it was the last question from the last student in the letter that gave me pause. The student asked, “Are people being nice?” Are people being nice?

Well, if you turn on the news today, or yesterday, or a week ago, or a month ago — particularly one of the cable channels — (Laughter.) — you can see why even a kindergartener would ask this question. (Laughter.) We’ve got politicians calling each other all sorts of unflattering names. Pundits and talking heads shout at each other. The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story — which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible.”

I was reminded of these words in the president’s commencement address because I have been thinking about the state of our national discourse and about ways and means of coming to terms with the polarization, division, and distrust that now seem to be a part of our national conversations.

One way I sometimes begin to think about problems is to raise questions. The answers to those questions may lie in the future. But the future can never be transformed without formulating a set of present problems. One way of addressing present problems is to at least raise a few probative questions that might tease out areas of concern that might need to be addressed. So, in that spirit, the following questions seem to me pertinent at this point in our communal walk together as a nation and as world citizens:

Could the clamor and the noisemaking the president refers to have certain unintended consequences? Are certain instances of incivility so brazen and so disruptive that they become roadblocks to vibrant democratic participation or scare us away from our most sincere efforts at mutual dialogue. If we encounter fewer and fewer mediated and non-mediated models of true civic engagement, then at what point does our chosen polarization stymie our best intentions and sidetrack our most resolute goals? When does outrage become a rationale for dismissing all but one’s own point of view? When does the “incendiary” start to become a national burden rather than a mere preoccupation for media outlets and titillation for consumers hungry for the latest raw and undigested pulp? How is it that political and celebrity scandals can gain so much attention while human want and suffering is so soon forgotten? In what alternative universe can we sit down together and talk in a rational fashion about politics in Wisconsin? How might we create a comfortable political and psychological discursive environment that will enable us to make effective joint decisions about our most sacred government entitlement programs or what constitutes an adequate budget for our military defense needs?

While these are complex and vexing questions, and only a sampling at that, they seem to me to beg for answers. And while answers remain obscure at this moment, it seems clear that two ingredients seem essential in any attempt to amend the status quo: empathy and trust. Empathy must precede trust. If we cannot empathize with others, we cannot identify with their pain or appreciate their unique circumstances. If we remain distant or immune to the cries of the young, the needs of the elderly, or the burdens of the poor, if we are unable to feel their suffering, then we will fail to identify with them and our empathy will be in short supply. Without empathy, it will be hard to build trust. And without trust in ourselves and our ability to bridge some seemingly daunting chasms, we will remain polarized, divided, and even forlorn.

Communication Studies as a discipline is uniquely positioned to ameliorate our divisions and suggest ways of overcoming our mistrust. It can lead us to new paths to empathy and authentic concern for others. In our best research and in our best classrooms this path has already been chosen. In Communication Studies we find common cause. As Kenneth Burke once declared, at its heart, “Communication is a generalized form of love.” While this may sound overly idealistic since human beings are imperfect, we have ample evidence that our communication is perfectible. This certainly provides rich food for thought and common ground for attempting to answer those vexing questions of incivility.

Dr. Steve Goldzwig is Professor and Chair of Communication Studies in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

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