The Need for Civility in Political Discourse

On Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, my first class is PSC 307: The Politics of Citizenship. Our professor begins each class by asking the students what they’ve seen in the news, and it’s our responsibility to raise our hands to share what we’ve been seeing/reading, as well as give a very brief overview of the story we chose to share. One student raised his hand and told the class about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney revealing that his tax rate is “about 15 percent,” in addition to the discovery that Romney also holds money in the Cayman Islands, thus making it impossible to tax in the United States (I’ll admit, I haven’t heard much about this story, so if the information presented here is inaccurate, I apologize). Our professor then made a humorous remark about how Romney’s current tax rate was so crushing that he must have had to shelter his income off-shore. This remark got a chuckle from most of the class, and as the laughter subsided, the young man sitting in the row behind me threw his hand up in the air. Our professor called on him presumably thinking that he too had a news story to share, but he had something else in mind.

After being called on, he proceeded to start a debate with the professor about taxation rates – a debate in which he seemed pretty angry from the very beginning. After a few heated barbs directed at our professor were met only with calm responses, the debate was concluded with the two essentially agreeing to disagree. Now, the point here is not who I agreed with (although I happened to agree with our professor, for the record). The point is that the way in which this student chose to express his ideas was incredibly inappropriate for an academic setting. At the university level, students are encouraged to question and to share new ideas – blind agreement with our instructors has never been demanded or implied. But the tone of this gentleman’s rhetoric made it difficult to take him seriously.

This is the problem in modern politics – a lack of civil discourse. As we’ve all witnessed in the Republican debates, candidates seem to love attacking their fellow Republicans as much as they enjoy going after their eventual opponent: President Obama. Again, this isn’t to beat a certain political drum or to belittle a particular ideology, it’s merely an observation that the tone of political speech has grown quite hostile. And as I sat there listening to the debate between teacher and student, I realized that our classroom at that moment was a microcosm of the hostile tone that dominates politics. The student vehemently disagreed with the views held by the instructor, but seemed to discredit her opinions on a personal level, rather than an intellectual one. It seemed as if the student’s agenda was to build up his own credibility by tearing down hers (which is no easy task, considering that she holds a PhD from Yale).

In the coming months, as election season heats up, it is my hope that the debate that is sure to come will be a respectful one where we discuss the merits of our ideas and beliefs, not question each other’s intelligence, integrity, or character. As our political discourse becomes more civil: more idea-driven, and less about “You’re an evil Democrat” or “You’re an awful Republican,” the more constructive our debates will be, and the more our minds will be receptive to new ideas.


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