It seems as though people have been lamenting the decline of civil discourse for fifteen years or more. It's been easy to recognize as it has happened. Still, occasionally we encounter situations that remind us just how far out of whack things have gone.
A couple of different conversations did this for me recently. I won't bother with the particulars of these conversations here; doing so would risk relitigating the whole discussion, and I don't want to do that. Instead, I'd like to focus on the overall discursive climate in today's world.
When controversy arises, there is often One Right And Important Viewpoint You Are Supposed To Declare In Full-Throated Support Of A Slighted Person. If someone says something sexist, you're supposed to loudly decry sexism. If someone says something racist, you're supposed to loudly decry racism. And so on. Still, in many controversies there may be other matters worth discussing.
To name a few easily-recognized examples:
- Donald Trump may be a big jerk, but it might be worth noting that his Administration marks the first time in decades that the US government has not entered a new armed conflict abroad.
- Same-sex marriage might be a significant step toward equality under the law, but it could be worth discussing whether the government should play any role at all in marriage licensing.
- Although there have been many high-profile examples of racist police violence in America, a significant contributor to police violence is police militarization, not merely police racism.
Suppose one wants to talk, not about bigotry, but about one of these other important issues that are not identity issues per se, such as international peace, restrictions on government licensing, or decreasing the level of police militarization. In that case, one need not first recite a set of magic words about opposing bigotry. Especially where space and time are at a premium, it's best to get right to it.
I've noticed, though, that if one leaves off the magic words about opposing bigotry, the main pushback one receives is that one hasn't said the magic words! If I leave off the magic words, someone invariably chimes in to scold me and argue with me, to attempt to shame me, to call me names, to call me a horrible person, all because I haven't said the magic words, and even though the magic words have nothing to do with my point.
I am accustomed to this sort of behavior from internet keyboard warriors who might cross my path on Twitter, or in a blog's comments section, or the like. What surprises me is that recently, people who have known me for years on wonderful terms - good friends and family members, people who certainly know my true character - will pursue this line of argumentation with me. Not only will they pursue it, but they'll take it all the way to the brink, ready to end a good relationship over my failure to have recited the magic words.
It is as though the magic words take precedence over years of friendship. Perhaps for some, they do. But not for me. I'm not prepared to end good friendships over a hysterical need to recite magic words of anti-bigotry. If I know someone isn't really a bigot, I won't tap my foot, waiting for them to loudly proclaim their non-bigotry, and potentially end my friendship with them if they don't.
But some of my friends and family members are so inclined. They will (and have) called me racist, sexist, and so on despite decades of personal experience to the contrary.
How will I respond to their readiness to cut ties?
The truth is, I see a lot of this magic words stuff as a temporary mass delusion. This will pass, eventually, although I don't know how long it will take before it does. I see people growing increasingly neurotic as they take shelter from the pandemic in their homes, exposed only to a steady diet of internet, social media, Netflix, and high-calorie/low-nutrient delivery food. In short, I think people are going a little crazy.
I'm willing to forgive some temporary craziness under the present circumstances. If people want to hang their age-old friendships on a few magic words, I think that's a serious mistake, but it's one their entitled to make. However, I'm not going to make that mistake. If any of these people would like to patch things up once times get a little less crazy, I'm going to be there for them.
I'm willing to forgive them their craziness, in the hope that, one day, they'll forget what was so important about the magic words.