Civility and Civic Discourse
It is terrible to think where our country would be today if our Founding Fathers had refused to exercise civil discourse the way we refuse to today. They had the rare opportunity to frame a new government, and they recognized the importance of this occasion. Of course, they had differing opinions about the best way to establish this new government, in order to avoid the tyranny they had just fought to escape; and, given the gravity of such a moment in history, they felt very strongly about their opinions. They, however, did not resort to ad hominem attacks to make their point. They debated their ideas, but their conversation remained civil and fruitful.
The key difference between the Founding Fathers and contemporary politicians is that the former valued the opinions of those with whom they disagreed. They wrote the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, where they voiced their opinions in intelligent and productive ways. Some believed a strong central government was necessary to hold the states together, while others firmly believed that this would inevitably lead to tyranny. Both made good points and raised valid concerns, and, fortunately, those on either side listened and made compromises. Civil discourse provides an arena for the competition of ideas, which is essential to our democracy. It is because of this discourse that the United States found the balance between a dangerously strong federal government and weak central government that could not keep the peace.
Unfortunately, we seem to have lost this ability to engage in civil discourse. Tragically, we refuse to listen to those with whom we disagree. This cannot continue. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the past few presidential debates, where there was an embarrassing absence of debate and an unfortunate presence of personal attacks. Social media has made this problem worse by dehumanizing those on the other side of the screen, making it easy to attack and deride others in order to receive “likes” and “shares,” to gain moral accolades, or to experience gratifying catharsis. This issue has become so prevalent that there is a new term for shutting down the ideas of others without civil discourse: “cancel culture.” People are now scared to voice their ideas because they do not want to get “cancelled.” But this ideological stalemate must end, if the republic is to not just survive but thrive through challenging times.
If “cancel culture” remains so pervasive, the competition of ideas that is critical to American democracy will suffer. People must not shy away from sharing their ideas, and we must cultivate an environment where people feel free to offer new ideas and opinions. The competition that America’s capitalist system depends upon is engendered by the free and vibrant interchange of conflicting ideas; such conversation discourages monopolies, lowers prices, and encourages quality and innovation. Without the competition of ideas, the quality and originality of ideas will decline, and a powerful few will establish a monopoly on ideas. In a democracy, or rule by the people, it is vital that every citizen voices his or her opinion. Otherwise, the monopoly of ideas will translate to a monopoly of power, because knowledge is power. Consider the classic dystopia: in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother and his “thought police” seek to control ideas in order to control people. Thus, before the competition of ideas is completely extirpated, we must rediscover the lost art of civil discourse and bolster our economy of ideas.
So, how do we rediscover the lost art of civil discourse? We need to model the behavior of our Founding Fathers when they disagreed, because they were clearly successful. When we disagree, we must not shut down the ideas of others before we have even heard them out. Instead, we need to intentionally enter fruitful discussions where we legitimately consider the viewpoints of others. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Arguments and debates should be a mutual pursuit of what is true, good, or beautiful. The Founding Fathers wanted what was best for the country, and the goal of their debates was to find the best system of government for America. They did not necessarily accept the opposing viewpoints; most Federalists did not become Anti-Federalists, nor vice versa. But they were willing to consider contrary opinions through civil discourse, and as a result, both sides realized shortcomings in their arguments and reconsidered and adjusted their beliefs accordingly, to the advantage of our nation. We need to do the same. We thus strengthen our own arguments and grow as a society. When we rediscover the lost art of civil discourse, we will build a culture that encourages the competition of ideas and aids us in the pursuit of truth and goodness as a nation.
Isaiah Fisher is a 15 year old sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He enjoys reading, writing, and running. He plans to study mechanical engineering in college.
If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other pieces here on the blog, like this two-parter on the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass, this post on the idea of language, or this student essay on the philosophy of friendship.