Sunday, June 17, 2012
Incivility & public discourse
Throughout history, we humans have always been divided. We kill each other over food, turf, idealogy & just for fun. Even within nations united by a common heritage, race & creed, we find things to squabble over. That is just The Way We Are.
Occasionally, someone will try to appeal to a moral high ground.. an appeal that says we humans should be respectful of each other, & treat each other like we would like to be treated. That lofty ideal catches on from time to time, & often religious views form around it. Almost every religion in human history has had this concept in it's basic teachings. Some cultures are built around it & it extends beyond religious teaching & becomes 'etiquette', or 'manners'.
I think this concept is esteemed in the american culture. It is not always practiced, but it is admired. During 'bleeding Kansas' times right before the civil war, there were often heated discussions, at times including violence..
In October 1855, John Brown came to Kansas Territory to fight slavery. On November 21, 1855 the (relatively bloodless) "Wakarusa War" began when a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler. The only fatal casualty occurring during the siege was one Free-State man named Thomas Barber. He was shot and killed on December 6, 1855 where the main body of the invaders were encamped, some 6 miles (10 km) from Lawrence. A few months later, on May 21, 1856, a group of Border Ruffians entered the Free-State stronghold of Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and their printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores.
The following day, on the afternoon of May 22, 1856, Preston Smith Brooks (a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina) physically attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate chambers, hitting him on the head with his thick cane. Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and staggered away until he collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Rep. Laurence Keitt, who was holding a pistol and shouting "Let them be!" This was in retaliation for insulting language Sumner used against Brooks's relative in a speech Sumner made that denounced Southerners for proslavery violence in Kansas. Sumner was beaten severely and did not return to his Senate desk for three years as a result of his injuries to the head and neck area; he became regarded as an antislavery martyr.
These acts in turn inspired John Brown to lead a group of men in Kansas Territory on an attack at a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek. During the night of May 24, the group, which included four of Brown's sons, led five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown's men let Jerome Glanville and James Harris return home to the cabin of Harris.
Even chivalrous southern gentlemen got riled up & become unchivalrous. During the times of the founders, politicians & leading men of the era would offend each other & meet at dawn to duel. People would shoot & kill each other for things they felt demeaned their honor. But perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the western.. where men of the 19th century would meet in the street & draw guns over any impugning of honor or integrity. Anyone who called John Wayne a liar was sure to get shot, or at least a severe beating. Now a lot of this is just cultural myth. It makes good movies, but the reality was different. The point is that in our culture, it is esteemed.. civility is idolized, even if it is not practiced. A 'good guy' wears a white hat, opens doors for a lady, & socks you in the jaw if you call him a liar. A bad guy wears a black hat, kicks dogs, & IS a liar. ..and he always gets what's coming.
The anonymity of the internet has changed our sense of etiquette, somewhat. People are able to lie, slander, & exhibit poor manners without consequence. Rude, offensive behavior is even esteemed in some circles.. it becomes a contest to see who can be the most shocking & vile. I think reality shows also reflect this cultural change. Petty, shallow, self absorbed people are given audience, fight & squabble over unimportant things, & do not model anything that resembles manners. Bad manners are elevated, & good manners are seen as a sign of weakness.
This is just an analysis.. a philosophical musing about cultural changes. I'm not whining about anything, or expecting anything to change, or lamenting the good old days. Things are never as good as they were in the revised nostalgic past. But this lack of respect for others signifies a deeper outlook. When people can vilify or demean a group of people, it usually doesn't take long for other actions to be justified. Genocide, racism, & other group bigotry are not far off, once you put them in a subhuman category, and view them as inferior.
This cultural trend concerns me. Our 'politically correct' moral compass does not have enough strength to keep us pointed in the right direction regarding ethics & ettiquitte. It is easily manipulated, & our cultural changes are rendering it obsolete. All sides of the political spectrum mock & ridicule political correctness. Soon we won't even have that as a backup for manners.
Ideals are the basis for our actions. Wars are always justified by someone. Civility & intelligent discourse are not the norm in human history. But things like this seem to go in cycles.. moral values & manners seem to come & go. There are times when they are esteemed more, & other times where they are not. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the horrors of war temper our intemperance & make us long for peace & civility. But too much peace makes us cranky & mean, & we have to find an outlet, so we vent on each other. It is an intriguing concept & an interesting commentary on the human condition.
I do not have a right or wrong summary, but only philosophical ramblings. Good luck finding a point in this!