Civility is dead. This has been commented on repeatedly in the media, and repeated on various social networking platforms. The brutal political cycle of the last couple of years drove a stake through the heart of decency, to the point that I think we can honestly say the idea of principled, polite disagreement has becoming increasingly foreign in Americas' public discourse. There have been times in the past when we have been almost as polarized as we are today, and there have been times when we have been almost as rude as we are today, but barring the restoration of dueling, I don't see how we can get much worse than we are now when it comes to public discourse. I mean, even Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton wrote each other respectful letters about their disagreements before they strapped on their pistols and shot at each other!
I'm a historian by temperament and training. As such, I've always tried to look at the big picture and not fall into the "things are worse now than they have ever been" trap. In many ways, we live in better times today than our ancestors did. People aren't routinely lynched for the crime of being black, people with mental, sexual, or socially "different" lifestyles are no longer stoned, burned at the stake, or sentenced to years of electroshock therapy. Slavery has been legally abolished throughout the civilized world. Women can vote. We have air conditioning (and it Texas summers, that is a HUGE technological blessing!). In so many marvelous ways, we in the Western world live better than human beings have been able to since the dawn of time.
So why can't we be nicer to each other?
For years I have drawn cartoons and pasted them to the whiteboard in my classroom for my students to read. Some are just plain silly, and some are me trying to make a point with a dollop of humor. Last fall I drew one showing three men having a debate. The two on each side were shouting at each other. One said: "You're a commie liberal Muslim-hugging snowflake!" while the other shouted: "You're a racist, homophobic right-wing teabagger!" Then the guy in the middle spoke up and said: "Can't you see that you are both loyal Americans who love this country but have different ideas about how it ought to be run?" At that, the other two looked at him and screamed in chorus: "What's wrong with you???"
That sums up a lot of it. We have slanted "fake news" websites right and left, the complete marginalization of the traditional media, and the constant self-affirmation that comes from social media circles whose members all share the same political beliefs. This is compounded by the number of complete nutjobs from all fringes of the political spectrum who bog down serious consideration of issues with conspiracy theories so ridiculous that no one should give them the time of day. The result is that real truth is more elusive now than ever. So otherwise rational human beings are convinced that Bush and Cheney conspired with Israel and "big oil" to murder 3000 people on 9/11, or that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim who deliberately weakened America to help groups like ISIS establish a global caliphate, or that "Big Pharma" (Rule number one of demonization: reduce a vast, complex industry owned by multiple interests to one word, then put "Big" in front of it!) is hiding dozens of "cures" for cancer in order to make more money by keeping people sick. Put all this together, throw in a healthy dose of pure ignorance, mix in generational anxiety over America's ever-changing social mores, and what do you wind up with? Tens of thousands of people whose minds are completely closed to any explanation of events that does not suit their world view; who have lost all sense of nuance and complexity and embrace a simplistic, black-and-white view of the universe which is populated only be true-believing Patriots and The Others - an evil, vast group of villains conspiring to destroy Mom, apple pie, baseball, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could go at each other hammer and tongs from nine to five on Capitol Hill and then have cocktails at the White House that evening, when Bill Clinton could bash the Republican Congress on the campaign trail and still poach their best ideas, sign them into law, and then take credit for them when they worked. Now we are so polarized that ANY effort by people on either side of the political aisle attempt to work out some form of compromise to actually get something done, they are demonized as an "establishment sellout."
Well, as a historian, I can tell every one of you, both left and right - America as a nation was built on compromise! Our Constitution itself is nothing more than a bundle of compromises arrived at by a group of men deeply divided on the fundamental nature of our country - were we a confederation of sovereign states or a single nation made up of locally autonomous political districts? They couldn't agree on everything, so the document our nation is built on deliberately left many questions to be worked out in the future, by practice, trial, and error.
Can we bring civility back? Maybe. The best way to start is by us as individuals being civil to each other. Don't call people names because they disagree with you. Don't post inflammatory political articles until you verify whether or not they are factual - and even then, consider whether or not repeating this material will do anything to improve the situation it complains about. If someone posts something derogatory of offensive about a position you embrace, or a politician you admire, instead of shooting back with hateful invective, read it carefully. Research it to see if the claims it makes are true or not. Ask the person if they have ever considered the opposite point of view. TALK, don't yell. We've yelled at each other enough.
Civility may be dead in America today. But it doesn't have to stay that way.