What Happened to Civil Discourse?

Joanne Conroy, MD and Lisa Simpson, MB, BCh, M.P.H., FAAP

This has been such a disheartening and soul crushing week. It began last Wednesday when a white man with a history of violence shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kentucky Kroger store following a failed attempt to barge into a black church. Mail bombs were sent to people who had been critical of, and criticized by, the President and on Saturday morning, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people attending Sabbath services.

A variety of explosives and automatic firearms were involved, but the most powerful weapon used was hate.

How did we get here?

Go through our nation’s history and you will see that acrimony in public political discourse has always been present, increasing when there is economic distress, disaffection and cultural upheaval. Regardless of our politics…this spewing of anger and hate polarizes us rather than bringing us together. When we rage, we stop listening and miss the opportunity to bridge our differences.

What happened to civil discourse where we can debate without diminishing our opponents’ moral worth, avoiding hostility and antagonism? When did we decide there was only one pathway to righteousness?

Social media has too often served to amplify anger but expressing hate at the top of one’s lungs on Twitter or Facebook will only drive us further apart. The megaphone of rage will never result in what we really need, which is understanding, empathy and collaboration. We need to work together to find real solutions to our challenges. When did we stop sharing our perspectives calmly, clearly, accurately, and kindly?When did we stop listening to the perspectives of those who have different, opposing views?

And yet, terrible tragedies often bring us together. We are a generous and kind nation. Remember the sickening murder of nine black parishioners in an African American church in Charleston, SC or the shocking shooting of a Republican congressman at a baseball game in Alexandria?

The Emmanuel church members in Charleston, even through their mourning overcame the shooter’s hate by drawing closer together, creating unity instead of division in their community. The unbelievable forgiveness shown by the African Methodist Episcopal’s church members was astounding to so many of us. The community had a plan to convene a “Bridge to Peace” walk. It seemed too ambitious…to make a human chain across the massive cable-stayed bridge that spans the Cooper River. Organizers said they needed 3,000 people to accomplish the task. At least 10,000 showed up. As cars honked in support, the crowd roared in appreciation. 

When Representative Scalise was shot during practices for a bipartisan softball game, House speaker Paul Ryan said, “I ask each of you to join me in resolving to come together.” He emphasized: “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” Nancy Pelosi also addressed the House and said “How do we come together to give confidence to the American people that, as our Founders intended, we would have our disagreements and we would debate them and we would have confidence in our beliefs and humility to listen to others?”

Can we hope for a resurgence of civility, which has virtually disappeared from our public space?

Civil discourse is not only less disruptive, it results in more open minds and a greater likelihood of changed perspectives, of finding common ground. Ironically, it is when we are not competing to be “right” that we are most likely to have our perspectives adopted by others. Civil discourse isn’t just a better path for living and working together peacefully; it is a better path strategically if we want our ideas to be thoughtfully considered and potentially embraced by others. It is also an opportunity to have our ideas adjusted and informed by the needs and perspectives of individuals and communities who have not shared our lived experience. Only together can we address the many challenges that our nation faces. We need a shared dialogue, common solutions. Those are the ones that succeed and last.

Massacre in a synagogue

The event in Pittsburgh shocked a nation that was slowly becoming jaded and weary of the hatred and violence. It reminded us that hatred in our midst is not just based on the color of one’s skin, one’s country of origin, or one’s primary language – it is also based on one’s faith. Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe and this nation. Pope Francis delivered his blessing on Oct 28th grieving with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, denouncing the “inhuman act of violence” and praying for an end to the “flames of hatred” that fueled it.

What can we do?

Our institutions are places of hope and healing, of shared values to improve health and the human condition. There is no room for hate. We govern our own behavior and create the culture of our organizations with our internal policies and we are now explicitly stating that any physical or verbal abuse of anyone for any reason by anyone will have consequences.

Have an honest and open conversation with someone who has different views. In fact, seek them out! Do not sit in the comfort of sameness, seek out difference and from this, understanding and compassion. Remember conflict can be good…if it leads to greater understanding and empathy.