All noise, no signal
The day that Donald Trump stood on the Republican Presidential Debate stage, and refused to back down from his comment that no one would vote for Carly Fiorina, because of how ugly she is, is a moment seared into my memory. In years gone by, it would have been impossible for someone to talk like that and be considered a serious Presidential candidate. Yet here we were, and here we are.
News flashes about Nixon resigning aside, my first immersive experience of American politics was in 1989, in the afterglow of a Presidential election, three old-school politicians, gentlemen by today’s standards, were in charge of the country: George Herbert Bush, Tom Foley, and George Mitchell. Within a couple of years of that moment, the country was thrown into the Clarence Thomas hearings, and pubic hairs on cola cans.
It is tempting to feel the time we live in is unusually uncivil. Is it? In 1868, Democrats executed what some historians feel was the most racist presidential campaign of all time. Racism was not in the closet in 1868, it was on full display. Black vote suppression followed, along with terrorism targeted at African-Americans.
Yet even if the times we live in are not the worst of times, even if we concede that America experiences periodic incivility, that does not make the times we live in any less disturbing, any less arresting.
Definition of arrest
2a: to bring to a stop Sickness arrested his activities.
b: CHECK, SLOW Its growth was arrested.
c: to make inactive an arrested tumor
3: to catch suddenly and engagingly arrest attention
The talk today is mostly about Civil Unrest, when it should be about Uncivil Arrest. Sure, violence in any form, arguably for any reason, is concerning. For those that car about ideas, and the wisdom that comes from debating ideas, then it is the Uncivil Arrest of ideas that is most concerning over the long term.
America has become a society that is all noise and no signal. At least, that is the experience that many of us have. Noise leads to information loss. Noise drowns out discussion and focus on, the issues that really concern us the most. Our obsession with incivility, others and our own, arrests the focus on ideas; salaciousness seizes our attention, capture’s the moment, and has become every moment. Our virtual worlds have become actual worlds, the places we actually live.
Those that love ideas, knowledge, and wisdom, want space in the public square, for serious debate, about important issues, that impact the common wealth; those issues have a priority. The heartbeat of intellectual rigor is flat lining; arrested, and at rest. When I say intellectual rigor, I don’t just mean condescending big words from politicians with a thousand-watt smiles, I also mean the expressions of hope and despair, by ordinary Americans. I simply mean an open conversation where The Important information of American life is given more focus, than my team / your team cheerleading and outrage.
No human is without trauma, and without reactive impulses that they sometimes wish had been controlled better. To err is to be human. However, to dwell in the cesspool of uncivil personal attacks, rather than moving the ball forward on important issues, is a choice to dig deeper into the darkness of divisive politics. It is a decision to prioritize short-term pleasures over long term outcomes. Here I don’t refer to saying “fuck” in public. Here I refer to personal attacks that arrest our attention from what is really important. I also refer to people who are fearful of ideas; there is perhaps nothing more uncivil.
No team is without fault for the situation we find ourselves in. Few individuals either. Whatever the outcome on November 3rd, 2020, or whenever we know for sure, let’s hope the people left standing, have the energy and discipline to claw their way back up the mountain of issue-focused conversations, opening the door to all voices, moving the country in the direction of focusing on the issues that will make a difference, to the common wealth.