Modern civil discourse has a negative connotation— one that inspires judgement, rather than action. One that portrays argument, rather than intellectual debate. One that illustrates disunity, rather than community.
The definition of civil discourse is one that is flexible, it can hold a different significance to different time periods. To me, civil discourse is best exemplified through the transfer of ideas, through the cohesive discussion of modern issues. The modern definition of civil discourse has been twisted to represent bipartisan politics where hate—not thought—is transferred. A report by Dan Mager from Psychology today elaborates on the increasing distrust in political discussion, with “The Volume has become louder, discourse more course, disputes more heated and angrier, and conflicts more extreme” (Mager,2018).
The institution of high school debate is the perfect example of an organization that aims to increase civil discourse, but in totality ends up smearing the practice altogether. My experience with high school debate, the numerous competitions I was able to attend, and the awards I was able to earn is one that I will forever appreciate. My newfound understanding of a plethora of topics, economic, political, and social, is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But, the form of civil discourse that high school debate takes, is one that goes against almost every positive aspect of civil discourse. With one debater forced to argue one side of a topic, it forces debaters to embrace the same close-mindedness that plagues the modern political landscape.
The civil discourse that inspired the American revolution, the civil discourse that resulted in the Declaration of Independence, the form of civil discourse that allowed Benjamin Franklin to sign the United States Constitution in 1787, is not the same knowledgeable, inspiring, critical civil discourse that we have today. The founders interpreted civil discourse as a way to progress society, today leaders view civil discourse as a way to progress their own political agenda.
Political discussion among high school and college students has become extremely radicalized and provokes harsh emotions in everyone involved. It is for this reason that the vast majority of students avoid civil discourse, even looking down upon it when any type of political idea is brought up in conversation. As a politically engaged student, I have witnessed this phenomenon first-hand. The looks of disapproval from classmates, the eye rolls, the “casual” stare at a cell phone to avoid getting involved. What’s even worse is what happens when discussion is allowed to start, opposing views are not expressed as ideas, but arguments in a social construct where there can only be one “winner”. Talking turns into yelling, open minds turn ignorant, friendship turns into anger.
In the new age of technology, apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook give anybody with a phone and internet connection a chance to express their ideas. But just because civil discourse takes place online, doesn’t mean it’s a better alternative than civil discourse in person. A study done by the Pew Research study explains that a net 85% of people feel that people would say things discussing politics online that they would never say in person (Duggan,2019). This tendency creates situations where one has no fear of sparking controversy or targeting emotions.
The message is clear- there must be a new way of going about civil discourse, one that does not instill anger and discontent. The breakdown of partisan politics into a more united political landscape would encourage the discussion of social, economic, and political issues without drawing from the “Me against you” mentality. The change necessary must be initiated by the youth: the voices of the future, the generation of change. If the youth falls into the same trap that has ravaged modern civil discourse, then the hope for the future is dim. A study done in Sage journals emphasizes the necessity of youth engagement in politics all around the world (Pontes,2017). From the eyes of a high school student, it is my fear that the ball has already started rolling, we are on the same path as our predecessors, the path that has doomed contemporary politics. The social change necessary to take the future of the US off this path would be immense- but with the support of the bright, dynamic, forward thinking individuals such the students of today, our goal can be achieved.
So, when asked “What does civil discourse mean to you?” there is no singular answer that would satisfy the prompt. Modern civil discourse to me, is a practice in desperate need for change, it is a practice that in today’s world is often looked down upon. It is a practice that is so essential to the structure of human society that under no circumstances can we let it fade.