What Happened to Civility in Political Discourse?

Today I am preparing a Sunday School lesson about good citizenship. And I came across a great quote from President Hinckley, which immediately made me think about the tone of so-called political discourse in this country:

“Civility is the root of the word civilization. It carries with it the essence of courtesy and politeness and consideration of others. How very much of it we have lost in our contemporary society. The lack of it is seen in the endless barrage of faultfinding and criticism spewed forth by media columnists and commentators…Talk show hosts become rich and famous by snarling at callers and heckling guests. All of this speaks of anything but refinement. It speaks of anything but courtesy. It speaks of anything but civility. Rather, it speaks of rudeness and crudeness, and an utter insensitivity to the feelings and rights of others” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, pages 131-132).

But, of course, as we found during the last election, civility, eloquence and education are qualities deserving of derision — signs of the “elite.” It’s really too bad that pundits on both sides of any issue so often stoop to personal attacks. But I’m especially sad that one of these pundits is himself LDS, and someone who once publicly professed great admiration for the man he claimed to follow as a prophet. (Hint: I’m talking about Glenn Beck, who recently lowered the bar in political “discourse” with flat out falsities and outrageous remarks designed solely for the purpose of stirring up controversy and bringing more money for him, rather than facts and concern about actual political debate and providing reliable and useful information for his droves of followers.)

It’s a sad state affairs when bombastic attempts at money-making take precedence over actual political debate. Yes, these pundits are well within in their rights, and they are obviously very savvy businesspeople. It’s just too bad that so many of us think that these attacks are true debate, when they are often laced with falsehoods and deliberately distract from the true policy issues on the table. Rousing people to irrational and uncivil anger with untrue information and emotional appeals, rather than facts, is profitable for pundits, but it is detrimental to society, since it creates an electorate that is incoherently angry, mostly impotent and woefully uneducated when it comes to the actual issues.

9 Responses to What Happened to Civility in Political Discourse?

  1. One of my personal gripes is that “information” is so readily available that who knows if the teller has integrity or not. It’s almost as if the whole world is playing telephone and trying to publish our news this way. The more I read “scientific literature” the more disgusted I am that there is very little original thought and original conclusions, let alone truthful ones. Everyone seems to want to just use someone else’s thoughts.

    I have such a hard time finding a place from which to get my news that is untarnished. It doesn’t exist. I suppose that okay as long as I am staying up on everything so I know where the discrepancies lie (who has the time and energy for that?). In the meantime, I just do what I can and hope that others who are making difficult decisions are doing the same.

    I love the quote on civility, though. Although I generally lean one way, it’s sometimes shocking to see the meanness that oozes in the fight that is politics.

  2. You make a good point about the difficulty in sifting out reliable information. I think the key is to not just blindly rely on one source. You have to get your information from couple of different places, with different biases. So often, the actual truth is somewhere in the middle.

  3. I agree with your overall point that the current environment of political discourse is vitriolic and lacks in civility.
    I do, however take umbrage with your remarks against Glenn Beck. Yes, Mr. Beck has a tendency to be very biting and in your face. This is deliberate for two reasons: Comedy keeps his show interesting, and audavity gets attention.
    On the other hand, Mr. Beck is not seeking self-aggrandizement, but to make points. I think your assertion that he is all about self-enrichment is off-base, as is youraccusation that he uses falsehoods to tear down those he disagrees with.
    I believe that as caustic as he may be, Glenn Beck presents well-researched information in an honest effort to combat an encroachment of corruption in government and deliberate erosion of constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

  4. That’s where we disagree (as we so often do). 😉 Glenn Beck doesn’t have very sound basis for many of his “in your face” claims. And if you look at his tone prior to joining Fox, and his tone since, it is clear that his civility has taken a marked turn downward and that his abrasiveness is exactly in line with what President Hinckley decries. The documented fact that he has done a complete 180 on the state of health care in this country is just one of the many inconsistencies that he has shown in order to pull down his paycheck.

    Yes, he is well within his rights. And yes, he is doing what many pundits do on the left and the right. And yes he is obviously an entertainer. And he is very definitely a savvy businessman. But he is not contributing meaningfully to civil political discourse. Which was my point, and my main disappointment that as a very high profile LDS person, he is not taking any sort of high road.

  5. Complete 180 on Healthcare? Not so. He used to highlight the corruption and inadequacies in the existing system, now he simply cries from the rooftops that it would be many times worse under a nationalized system, and would erode our Constitutionally guarantted liberties. He has always been against socialized medicine. He could never truly support Mitt Romney because of his approach to healthcare.
    Yes, Glenn is not as mellow as he was with CNN, but he is very much the way he always has been on his radio program. While Glenn is often abrasive, I still maintain that he is honest, direct, and well researched.
    I would also present that the rhetoric coming from the other side is much more vitriolic and based on personal attack.

  6. I think the personal attacks on both sides are about the same, although the right in general has a longer and more documented history of more success with fear-mongering. They’re just better at presenting a unified front and rewarding those who play along. My issue with Beck is that he’s just like every other pundit out there, although he tries to present that he’s not. His 180 on health care has to do with the fact that prior to Fox News, he said reform is necessary, and that our health care system was sub-par as is, and now he’s saying we have the best health care system in the world (which we don’t).

    At any rate, Beck exemplifies my point. He does have legitimate concerns about the government. But every fact he uses is manipulated and used to a point where the emotional appeal becomes paramount. And he is abrasive for the ratings, which equals more money in his pockets and more books to sell. Which is my point. He’s not fostering civil discourse. As you say, he does what he does for the money. Just like every other pundit on the left or the right, he is making money off of how outrageous and uncivil he can be, rather than focusing more on the issues and the policy merits of whatever the case at hand is. And, since his current audience loves the quips, the sound bites and the savaging of other characters, it’s what he does. It’s pandering for money, pure and simple, the same way Al Francken did with his political stuff, and the same way Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton maintained their influence for so long: Pandering to the fears and anger of the audience.

    (Aside: I don’t see how universal health care would erode our Constitutional rights at all. For some reason, there is this idea that the Constitution creates a capitalist system when it doesn’t. It opens the way for various forms of representative government, and there is plenty of room for services that are government administered and directed at the “general Welfare” of the people.)

  7. I totally agree with your points Miranda. I say this as a member of the LDS church: I find it ironically other LDS people are drawn to his show and books and then seem to really buy into his way of thinking and the “fear” before knowing facts. I might be way off base here but I think other LDS people tend to put their trust in him cause they think since they are part of the same church he must follow the same ideals, values and ethics. After watching the clip where Beck got emotional after President Hinckley died and then reading your civility quote from President Hinckley, it is as if Beck just overlooks the polite, quiet, kind and civil example of this man who he admired not to mention all of our preaching about kindness. I am sorry what did he call Obama – oh that’s right – a racist!!

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