Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Erosion of Civil Discourse

Anna Quindlen, in her Newsweek column of May 30, writes that among the legacies of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, is that "America has become a country that sets its young people the terrible example of closed minds. The terrorists want to kill infidels. We only aim to silence them." Quindlen bemoans the fact that America has been "hijacked by those who cannot tell the difference between opponents and enemies, between disagreement and heresy, between discussion and destruction."

As a country that aspires to be a constitutional democracy, this is more than just bad news. Democracy requires the type of informed consent that can only be achieved through vibrant and often tumultuous debate. Closed minds slam shut the door of civil discourse and block the path to civil society.

Oppose the war in Iraq and we become traitors. Challenge the increase in political repression and the decrease in civil liberties and we are allies of the terrorists. Call for basic human rights in the treatment of prisoners and we are soft on crime. Ask that immigrants and undocumented workers be treated fairly and we are throwing open our borders to criminals. Suggest that access to abortion is an integral part of reproductive rights for women and we become baby killers. Protest the demonization and scapegoating of gay people and we want to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Suggest that religious supremacy is toxic to pluralist democratic society and we spit in the face of God.

At the root of this problem is the wedding of dualistic demonization and moral supremacy. It’s not just the dualism of “I’m right and your wrong.” It raises the stakes to “I’m the guardian of the morality and the society that you seek to destroy for evil purposes.” That’s a box that’s hard to get out of. What sane person would debate the devil incarnate?

This paradigm is operational in both religious and secular spheres of society, from the speeches of our President and certain Congressional leaders, to the guiding lights of the Christian Right, to television talk shows, to the lack of debate on college campuses. I tend to see dualistic demonization most frequently used as a tool of the Political Right. When I see it used by the Political Left, I think it needs to be opposed as well.

If we want to preserve the idea of democratic civil society, we all need to agree to certain ground rules regarding the boundaries of acceptable civil discourse. I don’t mean good manners. Non-violent civil disobedience may be bad manners to some, but it is one of the tools democratic civil society needs to protect. I mean claiming the intent of my opponent is evil and destructive. I have no problems seeing evil in the world, nor in arguing that the outcome of certain policies would be destructive. But when any of us assumes our opponent is inherently evil and intentionally seeks to destroy all that is good--we have driven a nail through the heart of democracy.


Blogger galiel said...

Speaking of dialogue, conspicuously absent from the discussions on this blog is any outreach to the one-sixth of the population who are not religious, who share at least the same concerns as the authors of this site - if not more, as we have been explictly targetted and demonized by the theocons and are earmarked for specific curtailments of our rights in a Dominionist theocratic regime.

As I have noted elsewhere online, there was an historical alliance between freethinkers and liberal/civil-libertarian-minded theists to battle theocratic oppression and support freedom of worship and expression for all Americans.

This has largely been erased from the history textbooks, but, as I am sure both Fred and Chip can confirm, it is fact. Every step of the way, in every single major civil liberties battle in America, from independence through emancipation to suffrage to the civil rights struggles of the 60's and beyond, folks with a naturalistic view of the world worked shoulder-to-shoulder with religious believers to enshrine and protect our freedoms.

I won't list the many atheists who were key players in these struggles, to keep this comment reasonably short, but I have listed them often enough and would be glad to list them again here if there is an interest in righting historical wrongs. More important than history, however, is the current alignment of our interests which should be, but sadly predominantly isn't, self-evident on both sides.

Many if not most liberal theistic commentators these days portray the struggle for the character of our nation as one between conservative and liberal theists, between "bad" and "good" Christians, between faith and dogma.

Similarly, many secular commentators portray our primary battle as one of reason vs. faith, rather than a struggle of reasonable thinking human beings, of all faiths and none, vs. unthinking, dogmatic and doctrinaire zealots (of all faiths and none as well--it just happens to be radical Christian zealots on the ascendance in the US at the moment, thus it is primarily Christian theocracy we must combat here at home.)

There is a severe loss to all of us if we neglect the opportunity to rebuild this historic alliance and keep America safe for us all.

lack of dialogue in recent years has only strengthened stereotypes among theists of militant hateful atheists, just as it has strengthened stereotypes among freethinkers of intolerant religionists.

The real enemy is any ideology that places a primacy of ends over means. And the very essence of civilization, no matter whence it derives its philosophical underpinnings, is a recognition that just means are an end unto themselves.

I assert that faith is not essential to support that morality - but it is certainly not incompatible with faith, either.

We should all be able to work together for common goals, as we did for much of this nation's history.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Jeannette Angell said...

Aside from everything noted here, the reactions of those on the right are simply lazy. It's easier to dismiss something out of hand than it is to seriously consider it, allow it to challenge one's thinking. It's as if people were putting their hands over their ears and chanting, "I can't hear you... I can't hear you..."

One of the most difficult realizations of life is that people with whom we disagree might, sometimes, have a point. Anouilh said that "it's when one realizes that there's nothing left to throw that one becomes a man."

They're still throwing things.

--- Jeannette

3:29 PM  
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9:17 AM  
Blogger QUYET said...

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9:17 AM  
Blogger ハリソン said...

this blog is kawaii XD
チラシ 印刷
I am sorry for doing this lol
I like to drinkコーヒー these days.
you know?
its food for sake.

3:22 AM  
Blogger ハリソン said...

you know評判管理?

3:22 AM  

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