Civil discourse and citizenship in the Age of Trump

Guest columnist Dr. Richard Bailey discusses the hypocrisy of political and social discourse in how inconsistently civility is cited as a criticism.

More often than not “discourse” is little more than a screaming contest. (Unsplash)

Dr. Richard Bailey

Nearly certainly, historians and perhaps political scientists will label our current moment — as some already have — “the Age of Trump.” A relatively quick Google search of that phrase would lead one to believe that we live in a time marked by unprecedented incivility. 

To be honest, though, while there are certainly unprecedented things occurring in the Age of Trump, incivility isn’t one of them. History makes it all too clear that civil discourse often has devolved into little more than name calling. 

Perhaps foreshadowing President Trump’s propensity both to question the birth of

his opponents and to make up names for them, John Adams had a special nickname for

Alexander Hamilton — namely, “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” 

Since Adams chose this appellation after his defeat in the election of 1800, maybe he learned such tactics from Jeffersonians such as Thomson Callender, who described the incumbent president as “a hideous hermaphroditical character” without “the force and firmness of a man” or “the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” 

And these incivilities simply take us through the first two decades of the

nineteenth century. Simply look at the political discourses surrounding the campaigns of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo’s own Grover Cleveland, John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon. Civility rarely carried the day.

And they made all this noise without the vehicle of Twitter, which certainly gives a

platform for even more less-qualified people to speak out in less than civil ways. For instance,

moments after the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice of the U.S.

Supreme Court this week, I saw a Twitter pundit remark that Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono’s vote of “Hell No” represented a “complete lack of civility and decorum.” 

This particular person crying for civility had been strangely silent, of course, when Nebraska Representative Don Bacon bragged about voting “Hell Yes” to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in 2017. In the current political climate, where the things that take one’s breath away come so rapidly as to appear nonstop, perhaps that silence makes some sense. 

But what about that tweet from the official account of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Republicans (@JudiciaryGOP) that read: “Amy Coney Barrett, confirmed. Happy Birthday, @HillaryClinton!”? You guessed it, silence on that one, as well. If civil discourse matters — and I’d posit it does — then it ought always to matter.

So, in the spirit of promoting civil discourse, what are some steps to take?

First, pay attention. Constant attention to the news, whatever your network or paper of

choice, or your Twitter feed likely isn’t healthy, especially these days. But being engaged in the world — and especially the community around you — is. 

Paying attention first to the needs of one’s community, as Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry reminds us in a 1968 essay on citizenship and conscience, complicates the notion of citizenship requiring “all the virtues, all of one’s attention, all the knowledge that one can gain and bring to bear, all the powers of one’s imagination and conscience and feeling.”

Second, join the conversation. Genuine conversation is hope-giving. Engage in it. Of

course, conversation involves both speaking and listening. Paying attention prepares one to do both. So, be prepared—both individually and collectively—to move beyond the limits of your social media presence.

Certainly even 280 characters rarely provides enough space for us wannabe

commentators to comment on topics of real significance. Yet civic engagement remains a

meaningful part of what every citizen offers to the body politic. Civil discourse also remains an

important part of what a liberal arts college campus offers to its community. 

Ideally, Canisius College students learn to think analytically and to express such thoughts both critically and creatively. A core curriculum that highlights the intersections of the disciplines of history, literature, philosophy, political science, religious studies and theology, sociology and the hard sciences prepares students to engage their world in civil ways.

Canisius College also offers many ways outside of the traditional classroom setting, such as the Contemporary Writers Series and the Border and Migrations Initiative, to develop one’s voice for civil discourse. 

Another such vehicle is the Fitzpatrick Lecture Series. Since the inaugural lecture in 1962 given by President Harry S. Truman, the Fitzpatrick Lecture Series has modeled civil discourse for Canisius College and the Buffalo community, inviting speakers from diverse political and social backgrounds, including William J. Brennan Jr., Richard Hofstadter, Daniel P. Moynihan, George S. McGovern, Elizabeth Drew, Carl Bernstein, Jimmy Carter, Kweisi Mfume, Cornel West, Mary Frances Berry, Dee Dee Myers, Morris Dees, Karl Rove, Jane Goodall and Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland. 

As even a selected list of previous speakers reveals, the Fitzpatrick Lecture Series has

offered a voice for civil discourse across a wide range of political and social perspectives.

Working with faculty from across the disciplines at Canisius College, I look forward to

continuing this venue for such civil conversations in the months and years to come.

And we look forward to you joining us in those future conversations. In his essay

“Starting from Loss,” Wendell Berry reminds us that “[w]hat gives hope is actual conversation,

actual discourse, in which people say to one another in good faith fully and exactly what they

know, and acknowledge honestly the limits of their knowledge.” 

Armed with the liberal arts education your faculty continue to work so diligently to offer you, find such conversations and join them.

Third, and finally, vote.

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