What have we learned about civil discourse these past few months?
In Egypt, we learned that if you don’t like the government, march violently into the streets until the military throws the bums out. Granted, it’s probably better for the entire world that the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t in charge in Egypt anymore, but it’s not exactly a shining example of democratic society in action.
In Texas, we found that if you don’t like a law that’s about to pass, rush to the Capitol gallery and shout lawmakers down until you can run out the clock on the offending legislation. This strategy offers only temporary gratification since it’s likely that in the end if the majority of the legislators chosen by the state’s citizens still want the law, it’s likely to pass anyway.
Across the country, we learned if you don’t like the result of a trial, loudly petition the federal government to intervene and give you “justice” as you see it. If that fails, I hate to imagine what’s next.
All of this runs counter to what we’ve experienced in the past.
Historically, this is how things usually worked. First, elections decided who ran the country until the next election happened. Also, the legislature, following very specific rules, passed laws. If they passed legislation voters didn’t like, usually they lost the next election and statutes were revised to reflect the current will of the people. Finally, trials didn’t always end the way we wanted them to. Sometimes, we felt sure certain people got away with murder. It should be remembered, however, that the law is designed not to protect the guilty but the innocent. The standard for convicting someone of a crime and taking away his freedom is very high (i.e., beyond a reasonable doubt) in hopes that no innocent person ever languishes behind bars or worse is executed unjustly. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but that’s the system.
I’m not going to naively pretend that things were always perfect. Uprisings happened. Sometimes when people didn’t like the outcome of trials they took matters into their own hands. Still, there always remained a level of respect for a certain sense of order.
It seems lately that we’re moving away from that idea.
What differs now from then is twenty-four hour news coverage with a media that makes money from exploiting events and social media which is teaching a lot of people to say exactly what they think in print to the entire world what they wouldn’t dare say to their own neighbor.
Years ago, on a trip to Israel, I saw firsthand the impact of the media on society. While there, members of my group and I noticed people milling about not doing much until a CNN camera showed up at which point they’d shout and wave their fists in the air. Clearly, they were playing to the camera, and I’m sure that if that scene played into the CNN storyline that day, the scene would end up on television.
With respect to social media, all you need to do is read comments after any news article or editorial online and see a level of unhinged vitriol you just don’t hear when walking down the street. My guess is lots of people bottle up they’re true feelings in public and then sit in front of their laptop and unload. While it may make everyone feel better in some ways, I don’t think it advances the ball when it comes to civil discourse.
Civil war . . . maybe . . . civil discourse . . . no.
Sadly, I don’t think things will improve. Unless an asteroid hits Earth and we’re all rendered back to the Stone Age, all forms of media is here to stay.
Unless we join together and demand a more civil way of dealing with each other, it’s probably wise to invest in lots of poster board and paint and be ready to hit the streets if you ever want your voice heard in the future.
That’s certainly sad but unfortunately most likely true.