Is Discourse Doomed? Not if We Act Together.

Photo by Shelagh Murphy on Unsplash

With this past election season —for Ohio, a May special election and primary— in the rearview mirror and another election already shaping up, I can’t help but reflect on how so many of my close colleagues, friends and neighbors have had their lives turned upside down. They’ve been harassed. They’ve been degraded with slander, name-calling and unsubstantiated rumor. These leaders — teachers, school board members and administrators — have been the subject of bullying beyond any levels they’d tolerate on the middle school playground.

When did it become okay to threaten public educators? At what point in our society’s evolution did we determine that vicious personal insults were not only okay — but something to proudly exclaim to the world wide web from the same account you use to share happy pictures of your family?

In the months and weeks leading up the May election, and even in its aftermath, I have witnessed more rhetorical violence and vitriol than I previously would have thought possible.

And it just leaves me with questions. So many questions. So, few answers.

Is discourse doomed?

When Ohio communities went to the ballot box on May 7, they were voting on local issues: Things like tax levies to support school districts and public services, alcohol sales referenda and a miscellany of ordinances covering topics as riveting as sidewalk maintenance and building zoning.

These are issues that are hyper-local with results sure to have an immediate effect on our children, our friends and the people we see at the supermarket. These aren’t abstract ideas, they’re real issues that we can — for better or worse — match with a human face.

Which is why the threats, attacks, slander and rhetorical violence have been so shocking. If we can’t avoid threatening those supporting a public policy proposal we disagree with when that person is in our own backyard, what hope do we have for civil discourse in any election?

Peppered between these threats and insults, I’ve also observed so many lies. Entire campaigns built around misinformation and unsubstantiated claims. Opinions built on inferences void of evidence are stated as fact. I’ve seen images shared that are vastly out of context — if not outright doctored. They’ve been attached to conspiracy theories clearly meant to enrage others more than to inform them.

Democracy is built on passionate debate, but why did crossing the line between passionate and petulant become so commonplace? Why do we allow others to feel empowered to gain notoriety based on spreading information that is as false as it is incendiary?

An example of this that remains on my mind — even weeks after the election — occurred just days before ballots were cast. I witnessed an adult with a successful career and varying leadership positions in a local political party belittle and attack a high school student on a public digital forum. The reason? A student who was likely becoming civically involved for the first time disagreed with this adult on how to vote regarding a school bond issue. The adult went on to insinuate the child made poor grades and had poor literacy.

Call me naïve, but before the current political climate in Washington, I would have been shocked to see an adult attacking a child — proudly and in public — over a simple political disagreement. Now, I’m just sad. If we can’t even resist bullying children when they first become involved in the future of our communities, how can we possibly hope to be respectful among our adult contemporaries?

What can we do to restore respect?

This election may be over, but another is soon to follow, and then another and another. If we can’t agree on most things — even whether it’s acceptable to bully a child or threaten violence, apparently — we can likely agree that the road to November 2020 is going to be long and full of behavior we wouldn’t want our children to emulate.

I find that I’m looking at the next 18 months with a sense of dread. I consider myself civic-minded and am proud to vote in elections when they occur. Yet, I don’t look forward to seeing people who I once respected share dehumanizing and offensive propaganda — under the guise of innocent memes. My stomach turns at the inevitable defense of behavior that no reasonable parent would tolerate from their child.

We must start working together to remember the very humanity that makes us human in the first place. Every advancement of humanity has involved people in forming communities to work together toward common goals. Without that, we fail.

It’s time to prize compassion over outrage. We must rediscover our empathy to work from a place of understanding that no matter our disagreements, we all seek to achieve the common goal to make our communities even better than they are today. No matter what we look like, what we believe and how we go about our days we’re all human. We’re in this together.

For my part, I’m pledging to excuse myself from conversations that turn vitriolic. I won’t engage with others who seem to speak only to stoke the flames. I’ll carefully vet social media accounts I follow and mute those whose only purpose is to divide. I’ll also silently listen to those who respectfully articulate a different opinion. I may disagree, but I’ll do so on the merits of the topic at hand. I’ll do it without employing slander, questioned motives or other attacks ad hominem. Will you join me?

Lauren Della Bella, LEED AP, leads a Midwestern architecture and design firm specializing in future-focused spaces for education, community and work.

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