Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Civility in Civic Discourse

So many political commentators have registered their moral outrage at the civic discourse in the presidential primaries over the past six months that I fear you may exit this blog as soon as you read this first sentence.  Please give me a chance to share to the future and the essential role of our schools so that we can move beyond this current political climate. 
After reading numerous comments by editors and listening to an endless number of political commentators, one could easily conclude that this crude discourse in the presidential race is different from the more acceptable civic discourse in the past.  This conclusion would be erroneous.  While I was completing my doctorate at Texas A&M University-Commerce, I taught as an adjunct American history instructor at Collin County Community College.  One of my favorite stories from 19th Century America is the election of Andrew Jackson as president.  Jackson married the love of his life, Rachel Donelson, before he ran for president.  Rachel had married Lewis Robards when she was 18, but her relatives accused Robards of abuse. Rachel later thought she and Robards were legally divorced; however, this divorce had not taken place.  Jackson’s political opponents seized on this issue and unleased a vicious moral attack on Jackson but especially on Rachel.  Their language was vulgar and straight from the moral sewer.  Rachel was so crushed by these moral attacks that she died after the election but before Jackson was inaugurated as president.  Some of Jackson’s closest friends and advisors feared that he would resign before serving a day as president.  As you know, he did serve, but never forgave his political opponents for the death of Rachel. This is one example of dirty politics among many that could be cited from past presidential elections in the United States.  
However, I do not share this example in order to condone the quality of the debates in the current presidential race.  After each debate the political commentators from the news media try to tell us who won.  It seems to boil down to which candidate had the best one-line zinger to which the other candidate(s) failed to respond.  A one-line zinger should have little or nothing to do with winning a debate. 
Many high school students and most college freshmen are introduced (it is to be hoped) to logical fallacies as they study argumentative writing and debating.  Logical fallacies are common errors on reasoning that will undermine the logic of one’s argument.  As I share four fallacies, think back over the presidential debates thus far and see if you can recall examples of each.   
First, ad hominem fallacy is an attack on the character (looks, personality, or attitude) of a person rather than his/her opinions or arguments of the topic being debated.  Did not many of the debates begin with this very fallacy? 
Second, genetic fallacy is the claim that an idea, product, or person must be untrustworthy because of its (his/her) racial, geographic, or ethnic origin. How many of the verbal exchanges between candidates have centered around this very fallacy? 
Third, hasty generalization is that one’s conclusion is based on insufficient or biased evidence.  In other words, one is rushing to a conclusion before one has all the relevant facts.  However, in our current presidential debates, facts don’t seem to matter anymore.   
Fourth, the straw man fallacy oversimplifies an opponent’s viewpoint and then attacks that shallow argument.  What grade would you give most of the candidates in these debates thus far?  My grade would be an “F”. 
At this point in the history of the United States, it is imperative that we seriously engage in moral and civic discourse regarding the complex issues we face as a nation.  Nonetheless, I am weary of listening to the vulgar language of our politicians.  Moreover, I do not want my grandchildren to hear it.  Neither do I want them to aspire to political leadership if they have to pattern their behavior after our current presidential candidates.  I am weary of attempting to listen to political pundits as they try to yell louder than the other pundits in their group.  Being louder than everyone around you and constantly interrupting others as they speak should not mean you win.  It simply means you are rude and obnoxious.  The current political climate is bringing out the evil angels rather than the better angels in each of us.  
It is up to our schools to produce a new generation of citizens that demands something better from our political leaders.  Since we are backing away from a total emphasis on standard test scores in our schools (thank God), may we turn our attention to civility in civic discourse.  I call upon Governor Haslam, the Tennessee Legislature, Education Commissioner McQueen, the Tennessee State Department of Education, local school boards, directors of education, principals, and teachers to commit to this goal.  If we do not teach our children how to participate in a democracy in a civil manner, who will be their teachers?
Reference:  Simpson, T.L.  “Model for Integrating Moral Discourse into the Classroom.”
Image Source: http://www.civication.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/civil-discourse-civility.jpg

Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson

No comments:

Post a Comment