It is a sad truth that civility and decency have greatly declined in our contemporary culture, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Our choices appear to be free speech that is intensely hostile and disrespectful or supporting censorship that seeks to prevent truth from being spoken because it is a threat to others. Neither of these choices is particularly appealing, and the choices have the appearance of a false dilemma. How are we to find other options and choose those options for ourselves? And what are the underlying reasons for the decline of civility? If we desire to improve the quality of discourse, we have to wrestle with these issues and overcome our weaknesses in these areas.
Ideally, discourse would be both honest and civil. There are genuine differences between people based on worldviews, but most people operate shy of the extremes and believe both in showing love and outgoing concern for one’s fellow man as well as supporting hard work and personal responsibility. Most of us (myself included) are not 2-D caricatures of talking points, but actual living and breathing human beings. Unfortunately, most of us have not sufficiently examined what we and others believe, the grounds of those beliefs, and therefore we lack the ability to see where others are coming from and therefore respond to them properly. This would not be a problem if we were not declining in civility simultaneously in all our social institutions at the same time, leaving ourselves unable to exist outside of the echo chambers of biased and (often mistaken) information that we are unable to correct because we are blissfully unaware of the ignorance at the basis of so much of our worldview.
But none of these problems would be impossible to solve if we had love and respect for others. There are many people I know whose support of government is largely due to the feeling that they have no other social net to depend on, seeing a focus on individual responsibility as a threat to any sort of support given the absence of family support. Likewise, I cannot remember participating or seeing very many conversations on controversial topics (which is quite a lot) where respect was mutually reciprocated between the parties. Over and over again, I have seen a reliance on biased information leading to morally dubious but ferocious hostility towards the “other side,” and an inability to wrestle with issues and instead engage in personal attacks. Even where one side of a dispute seeks to treat the others with some respect, often this respect is not reciprocated by the insecure on the other side, where statements of fact are taken as personal threats and therefore personal attacks.
As someone who is both particularly fierce in debates as well as genuinely loving and respectful toward others, I find it alarming and entirely unacceptable that others feel entirely comfortable and justified in lying about me and treating me with contempt. While ultimately I rest justice in the hands of our heavenly Judge, at the same time injustice deeply bothers me. The fact remains that if we want to see civility in our society and in our discourse, we first need to feel respect for others within our hearts. What we desire is genuine civility and that requires genuine respect for our friends and enemies alike. Our behavior will flow from our hearts, and if our hearts are not right with God and with each other, we cannot expect for our behavior to be proper. In a world where we see little need to spend the time and effort to treat others with respect (which, admittedly, is a difficult task because it is so rarely rewarded), this would require a major attitude adjustment on our part.
But if we desire things to be better than they now are, those attitudes must be adjusted. Ultimately, we cannot make others threat us with respect. We must be people of respect and honor ourselves, in the knowledge that many will not respond accordingly, and then choose most of our time and effort on those who will treat us with respect. But if we are not people who behave with respect, we lack the credibility to bemoan the lack of respect of others. Sadly, all too often this age is one of a demand for respect for ourselves that we deny to others, and if we desire to have happy and healthy institutions, this cannot continue. But we can only change ourselves, and hope that our own behavior can set a good example for others. Everyone else is responsible for themselves.