The Erosion of the National Civic Discourse
I am going to start this week with an acknowledgment that should be patently obvious, but apparently has become suddenly unavoidable: TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less is an opinion column. It represents my personal perspective- nothing more, nothing less. Well, good, now that we have this mandatory revelation out of the way, we can get down to the heart of what precipitated all this nonsense in the first place. You see, a few weeks back, I dared to publish a piece that was exactly that: an opinion column. And people just about lost their everlasting minds.
I am not going to go into the issue that served as the impetus for this whirlwind of criticism- this just isn’t the time and space for doing so and I’ve only got a 1000 words to burn, but suffice it to say, that my social media platforms blew up like a California wildfire, spreading hate and vitriol across a wide swath of territory with an indiscriminate recklessness. Now, don’t get me wrong- I write an opinion column because I appreciate the opportunity to discuss controversial, difficult topics, trying to offer a unique take on issues that don’t have simple solutions. And I do so to provoke critical thought amongst my audience, to challenge folks to confront and grapple with complex, nuanced ideas. I am absolutely fine with strong-minded dissent, In fact, I encourage it. I even wrote about this about a year ago in a piece entitled “The Happiness Within”, in which I discussed my personal evolution in embracing criticism of my work. At this point in my writing career, I want people to challenge my ideas and push back where they see fit.
But that’s not quite what I got. Provoked by my use of a word that clearly triggered some folks, they fired back with personal attacks that questioned my professionalism as an educator and my fitness as a parent, even those these were largely people who knew me in neither context. They suggested that I was “embarrassing myself” and should be “ashamed of myself”. Why? Because I dared to express an opinion that differed from their own? This is the problem with our continuously devolving engagement in a national civic discourse.
Even sadder, it was clear from some of the comments that many of these people hadn’t even bothered to read the article in its entirety. Are you kidding me, people? It’s a thousand fucking words, for crying out loud, and I even used one of them to include that profanity right there. That’s a five minute read on Medium. What’s truly crazy about all this is that some of these people took the time to type out a lengthy, verbose response, all predicated on reading no more than the one sentence hook and/or lead paragraph I use to promote the piece. I’m guessing that many of these folks spent at least 15–30 minutes typing out responses to a five-minute article they couldn’t be bothered to read. And if you don’t see the irony and blatant narcissistic self-absorption involved there, I’ve got a class in Classic Greek Drama you need to take.
The fact is that these folks didn’t read the column in its entirety because they didn’t feel they needed to; they had already pre-determined their response by the camp with which they aligned themselves. We don’t listen to each other anymore, open to nuanced perspectives that might challenge our preconceived notions. Rather we entrench ourselves in our deep-rooted ideologies and shove our fingers in our ears to deafen any potential questioning of our intellectual dogma. Worse yet, we kick and scream trying to silence those who speak their minds altogether.
Make no mistake, I consider myself a progressive liberal, finding myself on the left side of the aisle on the vast majority of issues. But that’s just the point. I think for myself. I may align myself with a liberal viewpoint on most issues, but I don’t belong to any particular camp, putting aside critical thought to make sure I fit in with the team. No, I believe it is our civic duty to think critically and independently about complex issues, to form our own opinions based upon experiences and research. My ideas are mine- they do not belong to the left or to the right. And when my perspective aligns with traditional right-wing politics, well, I speak that TRUTH just as vociferously.
Based on that dynamic, I often hear criticism from my right-leaning friends and readers. But this vitriolic, closed-mindedness from the left truly took me back. Isn’t free, independent thinking supposed to lie at the very heart of liberalism? My bias of perspective has often led me to believe that people on the left are far more open to challenging, divergent perspectives. But what I realized from all of this is that both sides of the political aisle have shut out opinions that differ from their own and tried to drown them out in the deafening thunder of their own self-righteous condemnation. Close-minded team-thinking is not a right or left issue. It’s an American issue. And our civic discourse is suffering as a result.
Back when I was at Colgate University in the early 1990’s (yes, the 1990’s- so go screw yourself!), I recall Louis Farrakhan being invited to speak on campus as a guest lecturer. This caused a furor amongst some students who found Farrakhan to have engaged in a number of anti-Semitic comments, even having been labeled as anti-Semite by the Anti-Defamation League itself. But the university persevered, believing that Farrakhan represented an arousing point of view that would compel students to confront their pre-existing thoughts on race and inherent systems of discrimination. While I have always taken issue with Farrakhan’s assertions about the role of the Jewish people in the historic disenfranchisement of black Americans, I walked away from his talk with a much heightened awareness of the systemic racism that pervades American culture. By keeping an open mind, I actually learned something for once. I wish the people who responded to my previous article had done the same. And even more so, I hope they read to the end of this column.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com