However, in the passions of the moment, civil conversation is abandoned to the immediate need of expressing a strong opinion. The result is attacking a messenger instead of the message, using inflammatory language, and comparing the incomparable.
A few days ago, for example, a thoughtful commentary placed the name of a legislator in the same headline with economist Karl Marx. The writer’s goal was to attract attention, then to reflect on inconsistencies between a general philosophy and a specific issue. But, Marx remains an inflammatory figure in the public mind, not a rational commentator on contemporary life or a serious economist. Connecting the two men, in my view, was a step toward uncivil commentary.
My favorite example of outrageous language utilized to defeat a public policy is health care. In the late 1930s, Earl Warren, then governor of California, was treated for pneumonia, concluding from the experience that no average Californian could afford quality care. He proposed a state-operated program to help out. Fearing diminution of the role of physicians, a medical association struck back, calling the program “socialistic,” and “a German idea.” Instead of reasonably discussing elements of the program, such as cost, benefits and administration, it utilized highly-charged language that defeated the program. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and beyond, faced with the same form of opposition, were unable to deal with the problem while other nations, unburdened by similar responses to language, successfully provided universal health care to their populations.
A more subtle technique also compares the incomparable. When an observer believes that a legislative action is unnecessary, silly, or, more likely, unacceptable, the following sentence commonly appears: “Why is our legislature dealing with this when, instead, it should be dealing with jobs and education?” The goal is to trivialize a specific action, a defined legislative bill, by comparing it to, well, who knows what? The comparison is not specific. It is not thorough. It is not even reasonable. The commentator does not provide a specific and tangible proposal regarding jobs and education. It is a generalization without weight. The commentator brings forth a theoretical need to improve jobs and education, without taking the additional step, the most difficult step of all, of giving us something legitimately comparable, such as a new program, or an increased budget, or a new agency, to concretely deal with jobs and education. The comparison appears powerful, but, in fact, is weak.
Civility, however, is not a prominent feature of human nature, and has rarely dominated public discussion. We find ease in calling someone else a jerk, instead of attempting to understand that person’s experiences, education, world view, and context of proposals. We rarely read entire bills, or even legislative reports, defaulting instead to brief newspaper accounts or two minute spots on television. This unavoidable human tendency mitigates against civil discussion. Understanding is obscured by the language we use.
John Guy is a certified financial planner, is author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale,” and president of Indianapolis-based Wealth Planning & Management LLC. He regularly writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal and contributes to the Civic Blog.