Roger Durham wonders if modern day discussion has less to do with logic and persuasion than it does a good set of pipes.
It is louder these days. Louder and less civil. Louder and more vitriolic. The effort to contribute to a civil discourse about anything of substance seems as passé as root beer or the nuclear family.
In reading and contributing to The Good Men Project, I have been astounded by the vehemence, and the volume, with which some disagree with articles. The most outrageous example appeared in January, 2011. Founder Tom Matlack, posted an article titled, Cleavage or Soul: What Women Do We Love? He asked provocative questions. He invited a serious look at how men and women are perceived in popular culture. It was, in my view, a thoughtful treatment of gender stereotypes, but a lot of people disagreed with my assessment. Rather than engaging in a civilized challenge of his thoughts, here are some of the comments to Tom’s article:
“No Tom. Men like me have an enemy all right. And the enemy is man-hating, white knighting, mangina apologists like you.”
“I’m guessing you also consider yourself to be one of these ‘nice guys’ women hate. Let me let you in on a secret – you really don’t seem like a nice guy. Frankly, you have a chip on your shoulder the size of a city. And you’re arrogant and condescending. That would be why women would dislike someone like you – you are the douchebag,” offered a woman.
And it got worse. Some who commented became more intent on attacking Tom than on challenging his ideas and furthering any sort of dialogue. The noise grew louder and louder until the “comments” section read more like a transcript of a Maury Povich show than an online conversation about what it means to be a good man.
A friend tells me of a similar experience he had with a blog he posted on the Washington Post. It was for a parenting column. He was stunned by the vitriol and personal attacks his post engendered. More than 100 people took it upon themselves to demean him in some way, and he wasn’t even writing about anything of controversy. It was an article recounting how his son helped him build a website and the lessons about commitment that were learned in the process.
Why should I be surprised, really? We live in a day when Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern rule the AM band of the airwaves. Our sensibilities have been assaulted for two decades by the likes of Maury Povich, Jerry Springer and Don Imus. Popular TV comedy has migrated to the genre of The Simpsons and South Park. Political and Sports talk shows feature people shouting at each other, as if the loudest argument is the most convincing. Sure, I am painting with a broad brush. I know plenty of people who enjoy, and find harmless, The Simpsons. One of my best friends plans his day around Imus in the Morning. I listen and laugh out loud at some of the callers to The Jim Rome Show who starts his sports talk show each day with the challenge, “Have a take. Don’t suck.”
The point is, as the level of vitriol has risen in contemporary dialogue, the level of civil discourse has fallen. It becomes increasingly difficult to find a meaningful exchange of ideas that does not become focused on differences, and once so focused, dissolves into personal attacks. We are heading into the blue-flamed heat of a presidential campaign and already issues of personal character have usurped the place of debate on public policy. Political parties will demonize each other and the electorate will be left to choose between what are perceived to be flawed candidates.
How have we gotten here? And how do we recover a measure of civility that leaves room for disagreement without the need to attack each other? Men have been cultivated for generations to have answers, not questions. We are expected to know, not wonder. It is perceived as weakness if men have doubts or questions or fears or hesitations. Successful men have “figured it out.” They know what to do. They don’t waiver. They rarely hesitate. That’s how men are supposed to act.
Let me be clear, lest I be accused of being a “man-hating…mangina apologist”, I like being a man. I don’t feel the need to apologize for being a man. I don’t think I’m a bad person for being strong, or assertive, or decisive. I don’t think women are any better than men, in general. Women are doing their fair share of the shouting in the increasingly aggressive and angry climate of public discourse.
Still, it is largely a masculine stereotype that has pushed the tone of discourse into the cage-fighters ring. Don’t step in unless you are prepared for the assault that will follow. If you are not throwing punches or kicks, you are absorbing the blows, yourself. If you don’t assert your point, loudly and aggressively, then your opponent will take it as weakness and attack. And whatever you do, don’t ask questions, or entertain the possibility that you may be wrong. That is the opening your opponent is waiting for. He will move in for the take down.
What has been lost is the thoughtful exchange of ideas. Whatever happened to the carefully asked question? When was the last time you disagreed with someone and asked yourself, “Where can I agree with her?” or “How can I challenge his ideas without questioning his character?” “How can I disagree with that person without demonizing him/her?”
That’s what it will take to move toward a more civil discourse, assuming there is still interest in anything like that. I’m not convinced there is.