Where is the decorum in our 'civil' discourse?
The day before President Donald Trump took office, I wrote an opinion piece for our February issue asserting that Trump is a threat to small businesses in the U.S. The editorial ran in the February issue, and I’ve already received several responses from PM’s readers.
Some letters are in support and some are in opposition; some of these responses will be published as letters to the editors in future editions of the magazine. I will not engage with the content of the letters at this time in the interest of fairness to their authors’ opinions.
What I would like to point out, however, is the outright hostility displayed not just toward me, but also toward Trump, Hillary Clinton, both major political parties, and the people who identify with them. And it is not just in the responses to my editorial that I see this kind of hostility — it’s everywhere on social media and the Internet, and it occasionally carries over into face-to-face conversations.
So I have to ask: Since when does disagreeing with a person on political matters merit such uncivil rhetoric? When did it become alright to label others’ beliefs as stupid, ridiculous, wrong, etc.? And why on earth would anybody think it is acceptable to call another person names or label them based on their beliefs? Reactions like this, which are based on emotion infinitely more than logic or reason, only serve to widen the still-expanding divide in this country.
This is a bipartisan problem — both Clinton and Trump were absolutely guilty of perpetrating negative and inflammatory rhetoric during their respective campaigns. Trump’s “nasty woman” and Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” have already been absorbed into popular culture and can be found on shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, and more. And nobody can reasonably argue that Trump’s rhetoric as president isn’t regularly inflammatory (some body language experts even go a step farther and assert that his body language is equally as hostile as his words).
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s the Golden Rule, and it’s something nearly all of us have known since we were children. Putting down others and hurling insults to “prove” points goes against this and also does nothing to support one’s argument. But what if I said there was a way to talk about politics and argue one’s beliefs without resorting to calling names and disrespecting others?
When I was a child, my father was a lawyer and his friends were scholars and lawyers. I grew up listening to adults having conversations where the participants were clearly in stark opposition with each other, yet could still have a logical and civil conversation. They would argue their points, and the other side would actually listen. Sometimes, they would even reach common ground, or at least acknowledge that an opponent’s point was not invalid. This is also something that frequently occurs in institutes of higher learning, where the continuous quest for knowledge and understanding outweighs the limitations of emotion and the desire to be right.
Indeed, there is a way to respectfully disagree with and challenge someone without resorting to disrespecting them and discrediting their beliefs. This is, according to Plato and Aristotle, what good rhetoricians do, though it takes patience, respect, self control, and practice. It is also the foundation of a deliberative democracy, which is part of what this great country was founded on.
This skill — the ability to listen to and attempt to understand others’ beliefs without resorting to short-sighted emotional outbursts — rarely comes naturally. I still slip up now and then. But, as with many other skills, it can be learned and practiced, and it is invaluable due to its applicability to a myriad of real-life situations, including those in our daily work and personal lives.
I realize this column has little to do with plumbing, and I vow to return to the topic in future editorials, but I felt it was an important aside during a time of such political turmoil, especially when that turmoil seems to be seeping more and more into our day-to-day lives. For more information on the topic, the Institute for Civility in Government is one of many excellent resources. And, as always, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly any time.