I count on at least one thing that most Americans generally agree with: talking politics over the holidays is fraught with difficulties. On the one hand, it lifts the spirit to see, despite our differences, maintaining family ties and friendships remain a priority. On the other hand, our fear of engaging one another seems a near-complete rejection of our duty as citizens.
Looming larger than the divisive nature of today’s emotionally-charged issues is the manner in which we are now prone to interact with one another. Social media has certainly played a role by putting some distance between the communicants; making it a whole lot easier to say things one might otherwise hold in check. No matter how vile a thought is, there seems to be an audience for it. Yet, to borrow from what is often said about golf, I believe that social media does not denigrate our character so much as it reveals it.
I’m not the first one to offer such negative commentary regarding the human condition. It was Niccolo Machiavelli who, in the early 1500s, argued in The Prince that “men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good.”
In the next century, Thomas Hobbes saw humanity in a perpetual state of war; whether actually slaughtering one another or sharpening knives in anticipation. Living in “continual fear, and [in] danger of violent death,” he wrote, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The primary concern for both Machiavelli and Hobbes was establishing order among the masses who were (are?) woefully incapable of resisting their base impulses. Whatever the Leviathan, as Hobbes described the ideal ruler, needed to do to maintain this order was fair game, including the use of deception and the imposition of violence.
I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that the founders of our own country looked to another thinker for their inspiration: John Locke and his notion that all human beings possess the natural rights of life, liberty, health, and property, and that each of us holds these rights in equal measure.
Unfortunately, we seem to have lost track of the idea that citizenship in a John Locke world requires a great deal of work. This is what Ben Franklin was referring to when, at the close of the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what type of government had been established. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
At one point in our history, young people were taught the responsibilities of living in a democratic republic that included listening to and arguing with fellow citizens. It seems today that the whole idea of “argument” has undergone some unsavory transformation. It is now difficult to imagine that there was once a time when framing a proper argument against that of another was seen as the highest level of civil discourse. No more.
As an educator committed to this ideal, I found myself in a dwindling minority, surrounded by skittish colleagues unwilling to challenge their students to respectfully challenge the ideas of others.
On more than one occasion, I have been confronted by parents over discussions in my classroom. Their greatest fear was that I was teaching kids what to think as opposed to how to think. Many parents simply do not trust their child’s teachers as they once did. I offer the growing popularity of home-schooling to bolster my point.
As to my own opinions, yes, I explained, I do have some strong views. I also challenge myself to articulate the strong views of those with whom I disagree. This is a fine way to solidify and then defend one’s own opinions; and also evidence that those opinions have been arrived at thoughtfully and without malice. This, of course, is the classic debate exercise where students are forced to defend an argument with which they disagree. It not only hones debating skills, it forces students to understand the passions that others may bring to the argument.
Unfortunately, in an age where communications can be instantaneously transmitted to millions, debate skills are rarely demonstrated. The very place where these skills should be developed seems to be drowning in political correctness. Many of my former students now attend college where professors are required to announce the imminent broach of controversial subject matter so that young adults may excuse themselves from emotional harm. On these same campuses, invited speakers are shouted down by those no longer trained to evaluate an argument on its merits; no longer able to propose a counter-argument without yelling.
So ill-equipped are we to have civil conversations, we now just avoid them; even among those we love and care about. The result is that a great deal of civic work goes undone, simmering in the background, spoken of only when we find ourselves among members of our own tribe.
Of course, we still have conversations, millions of them every day, a cacophony of thoughtless exchanges debasing the country; or, as Machiavelli and Hobbes would observe, simply revealing our true nature.
The Founding Fathers were well aware of the risks they were taking when rolling the dice on John Locke. Even as criticisms have been levied in their direction for limiting just exactly who should be able to participate, a solid argument can be made for their effort to ensure that those who did were capable. The list of those excluded is lengthy. And, while the reasons put forth for this exclusion were dripping with classism, racism, and misogyny, we should remind ourselves that these white men with money had high ideals regarding the responsibilities of citizenship.
The question is whether we are wise enough to look past their shortcomings and acknowledge, in words and in practice, the immense faith they put in us to do the work required of free people; because, as we are all becoming quite aware, there are alternatives.