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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Random Thoughts on Civil Discourse

    One of the great tragedies of our age is the loss of the art of civil discourse. No doubt, it is a result of the degradation of our education system, but whatever the reason, its loss is more than just a loss of a means of communication; it is the first step on the road to violence. There was a time when two people could disagree and remain friends. They could coexist with their conflicting political views because the world, their world, was so much larger than ours. They had interpersonal relationships with neighbors, friends, their children's teachers, and others. Not every disagreement became a matter of national importance. It wasn't necessary to win, it was only necessary to be heard. And to listen. Occasionally, some common ground was reached, and then there was harmony.

    Nowadays, it seems that everyone subscribes to the 'scorched earth' method of argument. If you cannot convince the other party to your way of thinking, they must be destroyed. Worse, there is a definite coarsening of the narrative. Whereas in the past, the discussion may have become heated, it was generally accepted that ad hominem attacks, name-calling, and personal insults were a sign that one had lost control and, by default, lost the argument. Today, it seems that such things are almost a weapon of first resort. Even in the political arena, it is not unusual to hear candidates smear one another in such a manner that, in another age, would have resulted in a duel.

    Above and beyond that, there is a double standard regarding who may say what. Witness the controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke. Now, it must be said that, whatever your opinion about birth control and who pays for it, Limbaugh's remarks were crass and uncalled for. Don't get me wrong, I admire Rush's ability to articulate an idea, and his abilities as an orator are excellent, which makes his foray into crude behavior all the more baffling. Perhaps he was being honest when he said that his attempt at humor fell flat. Whatever the reason, a man of his station should be above such pettiness.

    That said, there can be no question that, had someone of equal fame, but leftist political views said something similar, there would barely be so much as a rumble about it. I know this sounds absurd, but I have history to back me up. When Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a slut,  there was a brief furor, a quick apology, and it was over. And when Bill Maher referred to Sarah Palin as a "dumb twat" , the silence was deafening. In that particular instance, those that claim to be 'feminists' had a golden opportunity to become relevant again. Had they expressed the same degree of outrage towards Bill Maher as they are towards Rush Limbaugh, it would have proven that they were above the 'Left/Right' Paradigm. Instead, they have sacrificed their facade of objectivity in favor of supporting those that, rude and crude though they may be, are more aligned with their political beliefs than Rush will ever be.

    But I digress...

    Civil discourse in which two or more parties vehemently disagree requires three things; education, a quick wit, and a mastery of language. My absolute favorite example of this is an exchange between The Earl of Sandwich Lord Montagu and John Wilkes. The Earl, incensed at something or other that Wilkes had said, told John Wilkes, "You will die, sir, either on the gallows or from the pox," said Montagu. To which Wilkes replied, "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

    Now, there can be no doubt that there was passion, hostility, and anger passed between the two, but the elegance of language in Wilkes' retort displayed a quick wit and a mastery of language absent from today. The closest that I can see from where I sit, is humorist P.J. O'Rourke. I love his assertion that, "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

    Perhaps if the vitriol were delivered more intelligently, we could ignore who said what and concentrate, instead, on what was said.

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