#81 – Bob Barkley: The Growing Incivility of Public Discourse

A reluctant churchgoer, some power pushed me there recently as the title of the sermon was particularly poignant.  It was, “When you open your mouth.”
On the same weekend there was an opinion piece in the local paper titled, “If you know you shouldn’t say it, then just don’t.”
Both the sermon and the editorial quote from the Bible’s New Testament book of James where it says, “No man can tame the tongue. It’s a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Here I was, in the midst of observing one of our nation’s more uncivil debates, about our nation’s antiquated medical care system, and I am confronted with these two experiences highlighting the unchristian nature of such behavior.  And yet, many of those engaging in this less than civil behavior, claim to be Christians.
What is it about our tongue that gives us so much trouble?  How can we “tame” this dangerous instrument – one that can also do so much good?  The sermon gave me the clue. It was this simple formula and it was not simply think before you speak.  It told me what to think about before I speak.  I am to ask 3 questions:
1)    Is what I am about to say true?
2)    Is what I am about to say necessary?
3)    Is what I am about to say kind?
It may be just that simple.  How come so few people, including yours truly, live by such a moral and ethical code?  Why does the media give credence to the tongues that are so out of control?  What attracts us to such uncivility?
When someone starts a comment to you with, “I shouldn’t say this, but…” we should quickly respond with, “Then don’t.”
But how do we control uncivil behavior in the public arena?  What is a well-meaning politician to do when confronted with uncivil behavior? Was Barney Frank right to ask, “What planet have you been living on?” to a rude, boisterous, and obviously uniformed citizen at one of his town meetings. Can we legislate civility?  I think not.  Then how do we establish a culture where incivility is unacceptable?
Not long ago I had a remarkably sobering experience as I joined about 60 educators in spending a day at a nearby prison.  It is not you usual prison.  It is a premier rehabilitation facility.  I learned much from the prisoners.  And a comment one of them made is particularly germane to the topic of civility.  He said, “All cultures depend upon imitation for their survival. Poverty and crime are cultures, and we tend to accept our destination within our particular culture.”  Apparently, if that is true, and I sense that it is, we have created a culture of imitation around incivility.  And one commenter on an earlier draft of this little essay even suggested, incorrectly I think, that those of us offended by the screaming and yelling, need to get over it and start doing it too – the ultimate in imitation.
The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon on the power of silence.  It certainly countered the raucous approach now being so widely applied.  One cannot think and reason well in the midst of noise.  Maybe that is why those who have apparently neither engaged in thoughtful reflection not wish others to do so resort to using so much noise.
I fear for a society that tolerates what is occurring right now in our country.  It is, in fact, what occurred in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. On that note, it is interesting that there is a German proverb (offered by a reader of this essay) that goes, “Be silent, or say something better than silence.”
George Eliot said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” And the Bible, in Proverbs 17:28, tells us, “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.”
What should civil discourse look like?  Perhaps the following quote from David Bohms “On Dialogue” offers up a good example:
 “From time to time, (the) tribe (gathered) in a circle.
They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose.  They made no decisions.  There was no leader.  And everybody could participate.
There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk.  The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed.  Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well.  Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.”
In the interest of a civil society, where do we go from here? I don’t know. But imitation seems unacceptable, and somehow, despite all the very good advice above, silence does not seem an acceptable alternative either.  Can we once again simply gather in a circle and talk and listen?
Bob Barkley