A few weeks back I saw a Facebook post from a conservative middle school friend that was highly critical of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality. The gist of the post was that, by taking a knee during the national anthem, Kaepernick was disrespecting the soldiers who had given their lives to protect the American freedoms that allow Kaepernick to protest. Below, another middle school friend, who is now extremely progressive and was recently honored at the White House, replied, “You are disgusting and I’m so glad I’ll never see your posts on my timeline again.”
This one interaction seemed to epitomize the general state of public discourse during the 2016 election season. Civility has taken a backseat to rage, righteous indignation and petty mockery. This has been nowhere more evident than during the presidential debates where Hillary Clinton could think of nothing good to say about Donald Trump and where Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” and declared that she has “hate in her heart.”
That’s not to say that the two candidates are equal in their coarsening of the dialogue. Trump is undeniably the prime offender. Vulgarity and offensive lies have been his modus operandi from the beginning of his campaign. His approach has directly threatened the social norms that hold our democracy together. This threat has come to a fore recently with his insistence, as ever without evidence, that the election is rigged and with his intimation that he might not accept the results if Clinton wins. Unfortunately, a growing number of his supporters believe that the election is rigged. Trump has undermined public faith in the process and is threatening the peaceful transition of power and the overarching focus on national unity that should follow a democratic election.
Contrast Trump’s attitude with the text of the letter written by George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton after Bush lost the election: “I wish you great happiness here. “¦ You will be our president when you read this note. “¦ Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
That the civility of tone and content of the letter are shocking indicates the deterioration of norms of discourse in recent years. The larger question, though, is why such deterioration occurred in the first place and what can be done about it. The end of the presidential election will not be the end of the underlying trends responsible.
I’d theorize that the combination of immense social and technological changes within a fairly brief time period are responsible. Now is a time of transition, and transitions are difficult.
Increased automation and easily accessible cheap labor abroad have eliminated many of the jobs that provided stable livelihoods for America’s smaller, rural towns. With the loss of economic certainty, so too go social norms dictating civility in favor of any scapegoat or Trumpian savior.
The rise of instant access to news through social media and the internet has created an unavoidable incentive for news organizations to garner page clicks. The best way to do that is to create controversies that will draw people in. As a result, websites like Salon, Breitbart and the Huffington Post race to the bottom with clickbait titles and hyperpolarized content. The rational middle has been cut out.
And really, that’s the core of the issue. The middle has been neglected. Part of that is due more to the social change. Now is a time where the country is rapidly changing in terms of demographics, and many minority groups are standing up to the very real oppression and discrimination that they have been facing. Faced with such change, and loudly demanded in an angry tone from rightfully aggrieved minority groups, many Americans become defensive and decry political correctness or prefer to argue over the specific methods of protest instead of the underlying reasons for protests from minority groups.
Concurrent with the defensive attitude of cultural conservatives, there is increasing intolerance from the progressive left of conservative views or any view that does not match absolute progressive purity. Recalling the Facebook argument I described earlier, it should be obvious that calling someone disgusting and blocking them is the absolute worst way to change their mind. Not only does such an approach encourage defensiveness, it eliminates the possibility for human connection and empathy that leads to the tolerance that progressives desire.
So what can we do as individuals to bring a return to civility in the face of a changing society? I think there are several options. First, avoid websites or articles that rely on incendiary titles or hyper-partisan content. Second, maintain perspective on the current time as a societal transition period where there will naturally be a clash of ideas. By keeping adequate historical perspective, we can better understand and remain calm about what we see. Third, engage with those you disagree with and when you do, engage on a personal, respectful level.
Gabriel Levine is a junior chemistry major.