Civil Discourse, Education, the Press and Democracy

I am a firm believer that in order to have a working democracy, a society needs:

  • An educated populace
  • A free press
  • Civil discourse

Unfortunately, all three of these prerequisites have been under attack.

An Educated Populace

In order to determine who the best candidate for any given office might be, advocate for or against policy positions, and actively engage in a democracy, the populace must be an educated one. Please note that the term “educated” does not mean a specific level of formal education. It does mean having an understanding of the way our government works, law in general, some knowledge of history, and most importantly, critical thinking skills.

Sadly, the means of education our citizens has been under attack for most of my life. Public schools, faced with continual budget crises, have seen growing classroom sizes. Governments have required a focus on standardized testing in grade school (which means that teaching factoids are given priority over the more difficult teaching of critical thinking skills). And academia has suffered sustained attacks both in terms of funding/reliance on student loans as well as societally by painting universities as arenas of “socialist brainwashing” and students are belittled as “frail snowflakes”. Despite the attacks on academia, more students than ever are attending institutions of higher education. But because they do so only by mortgaging their future with onerous student loans; the investment is expected to pay off with an occupation that will justify those loans. This, in turn, means students tend to focus on career specific tracks — often at the expense of losing out on courses which focus on the development and exercise of critical thinking skills.

This attack on education has borne fruit. Many adults now lack an even basic understanding of history, the functioning of government, or critical thinking skills. For example, I recently had a college educated adult tell me that society didn’t change at all between 1600 and 1875. He honestly didn’t realize that that time frame includes the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the beginnings of modern democracies, and the European colonialism of vast swaths of the world. Similarly, I met a college educated man en route to a state lobby day. We were to meet with our state representatives and senators. Alas, he did not realize that at the state level, each person has one of each as opposed to the federal level where voters have one representative and two senators. More disturbingly, people from all points on the political spectrum have been persuaded to believe falsehoods because they saw a meme or read a story from an unreliable source and have been unable to discern fact from fiction.

Let me make it clear that though I believe an educated populace is necessary for a healthy democracy; in no way do I support tests or proof of education in order to participate in said democracy. Rather, I propose that we support schools and teachers, we increase access to education, and that, we demand an end to these ongoing attacks against education at all levels.

Free Press

Freedom of the press is another cornerstone of a democracy. This ties closely to being an educated populace. Without the press, we would not know what the government is doing unless we attend all government meetings and read each bill, proposed ordinance, and policy proposals ourselves. And though the press is more ubiquitous than ever, it too has undergone sustained attacks.

These attacks have been primarily on two fronts. The first is financial. With the consolidation of media, positions for reporters have been cut. This is felt especially hard at the state and local level. Yes, there are 24-hour, breaking news every minute media. But that media tends to be focused at the federal level. It is much more difficult to stay informed with state level politics and even harder for municipal, school, and county politics. If one is in a major city, the major city paper likely covers the machinations at city hall. But for those in suburbs, exurbs, or rural communities, the actions of local government tend to be covered only in the midst of scandal. People’s lives are too busy to attend the meetings themselves. Often, the only people in attendance at various government meetings are the elected officials, staff (if any), and people with business before the elected officials (lobbyists, contractors, etc). And without the watchful eye of the press, ill-advised activities proceed without scrutiny. Even granting that the majority of local elected officials are honest folks trying to do right by their communities, conflicts of interest, kickbacks, etc. still happen. And the bad behavior goes unnoticed without the intrepid reporter (now sometimes hobbyist blogger) doing due diligence.

The second attack is the one more of us have noticed. And that is calling any press with which one disagrees as “fake news”. Yes, fake news exists — and preys upon those who lack critical thinking skills to be able to distinguish satire and fiction from news stories. There is also the ever present opinion pieces or editorial stance driven news. Opinion pieces are not in and of themselves problematic (indeed, this is an opinion piece). The problem is again with critical thinking — that people fail to be able to discern punditry from reporting. The final “fake news” isn’t fake at all; but actual reporting of facts one wants to deny. Our current President has famously (infamously) called nearly every mainstream outlet “fake news” — thus encouraging people to go to punditry (punditry favorable to him, of course) rather than reporting for their news sources. I contend that undermining the trust of actual reporting is part of the attack on the free press. This is especially the case when it is a high government official calling a media outlet “fake”.

Civil Discourse

The final prerequisite of a democracy is that one ought to be able to engage in the “marketplace of ideas” (I’m not a fan of the mercantile description, but you all know what I mean). Even those of us with strong, well formulated opinions, are well-served by learning the perspectives of others and engaging in civil debate with them. None of us, even the most educated and reasoned, have a corner on the best way to approach any particular societal problem. And we can learn from healthy, respectful debate by discussing our ideas with people who hold different opinions. Indeed, sometimes we can find points of convergence or an altogether different approach than either the two interlocutors had at the onset of the discussion.

Alas, civil discourse has also been under attack. Even though we can now have discussions with people from all over the world with ease due to the growth of social media; those discussions have been increasingly siloed into echo chambers. And the elections of 2016 made those echo chambers all the more “pure” without any room for disagreement (regardless of one’s political affiliation). As someone on the left, I found myself ostracized and “unfriended” when I took issue with something the Democratic Party did or pointed out that attacks on the First Lady’s previous career was nothing short of slut-shaming. Those on the right have also been bullied and/or silenced for expressing viewpoints not presently in fashion with others on the right. And discussions across partisan lines are even more discouraged and discouraging. Rather than respectful discourse, the discussion far too frequently goes to ad hominem attacks and vilifying all those who think differently than oneself.

With the decline in civil discourse, we not only lose the opportunity for creative problem solving; but eventually, we lose the very nature of a democracy. Elections are won and lost not just on the basis of turnout/ GOTV; but also on persuasion. If we cannot respectfully talk to anyone who has a different point of view than our own, we certainly cannot persuade someone who has a different point of view to adopt ours. And to think that opinions cannot change is a denial of history. One only needs to look at the recent successes of the LGBT civil rights movement to realize that minds can be changed.

We must, with all urgency, support the teaching of critical thinking skills, support a free and vibrant press, and support civil debate on a wide range of issues. Our democracy requires it. Our future requires it. Indeed, I would say it is our patriotic duty.

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