The Privilege Of ‘Civilized’ Political Discourse

By Ijeoma Oluo

Politicians debate the Compromise of 1850 in the Old Senate Chamber; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From the days of Hobbes and Locke, the idea of the social contract — and with it, the value of political discourse — has been central to western democracy. The ideal scenario of a civilized meeting of the minds, in order to find compromise and consensus, has been viewed as the gold standard for political society. We get together, we debate vigorously. The best ideas win and we move forward together as one country.

This election cycle, the civilized, adult debate of the past has been thrown out the window and replaced with reality-TV-style antics, angry protest, and online harassment. Talk to your friends or coworkers about this election and one of them is sure to say something about how far we’ve fallen from our civilized roots.

“Whatever happened to political discourse?” they say as others shake their heads sadly.

We use this lamentation to not only mourn the past, but to shame the present. We invoke history’s friendly meetings of the mind in order to chastise those who just can’t seem to get along today. But this argument — its cries for the return of civilized debate, its reverence for the power of the social sphere to find a happy medium — is not only rooted in a wholly incorrect interpretation of our political history, but is also incredibly privileged and unjust.

Our government has been a lot of things over the years, but it has never been civilized. Yes, we are currently discussing the penis size of presidential candidates during debates, but nobody is being caned on the Senate floor. It’s also been a while since a senatorial fistfight broke out. The Tea Party members of the House of Representatives may seem pretty extreme, but they have yet to break out fireplace pokers and rumble in the halls.

Beyond our esteemed elected representatives, the voting public has always been far from peaceful. Voting day in the 1800s reliably involved widespread brawls at voting stations, rampant voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and other shenanigans. My point is, never in our history have we had “civilized political discourse.”

Even during the years when we seemed to outgrow Senate floor fisticuffs, political debate was not the bastion of just governing that we claim it to be. For most of this country’s history, only certain people were allowed to participate in our “political discourse” — first it was only landed white men, then white men and wealthy free blacks (surely an underwhelming number). Then white men and white women and some blacks. Eventually — very recently — political participation was opened up to the majority of the adult citizenry, although recent efforts to revive Jim Crow-era voting laws threaten this historically recent progress.

Beyond voting, the ability of the ideas and values of all Americans to be voiced and heard in our representative democracy has always been limited for people of color, those with mental illness or disability, the poor, the incarcerated, and our LGBT populations. Our current Congress is 80% white, 80% male, 92% Christian, and almost 100% straight. Latest financial numbers show the average net worth of our Congressmen and women to be almost $8 million each. This representative democracy represents a very specific and limited America, one that many of us are not a part of.

Because of this, because our government has always been and continues to be a bastion of wealthy, white male power, we find ourselves in “polite, civilized debate” over issues of life and death, freedom and liberty. These debates cordially go on for years, decades, even centuries, because the sense of urgency is not felt for those on top.

We have had lengthy, robust debates on slavery while black Americans were bred like cattle and whipped like horses. We have had civilized discourse on women’s suffrage while women were unable to handle their own financial and personal affairs, leave an abusive marriage, or pursue their potential. We have agreed to disagree for centuries on whether or not gay people were allowed to marry and have families.

As these horrific injustices are eventually ended — say, by declaring that black people are no longer only three-fifths human, or by giving women the right to vote — we view that as proof that the system works, that eventually, if we all just talk about it rationally, we’ll come to the right decision.

And in the meantime, generations of babies are ripped from their mother’s arms and sold. In the meantime, one-third of the black male population serves time in prison. In the meantime, millions of Central and South American immigrant families are torn apart. In the meantime, thousands of men, women, and children are killed in drone strikes.

If your son will never be one of the 1 in 3 black men imprisoned in America, if you will never need an abortion, if you don’t have to fear watching your family die in a drone strike, debate can be vigorous fun — like being a freshman in Poli Sci all over again. When you have nothing to fear, the most important decisions in our government all turn into thought experiments where everything — even the lives of human beings — is up for compromise.

But for the rest of us, for those of us directly and horrifically impacted every day by the slow and comfortable pace of “progress,” the call for civilized debate is barbaric. The lack of yelling, the lack of protest, the lack of rage and urgency around issues that are literally killing people is a glaring testament, not of our manners, but of our lack of basic empathy as a society.

There are no claims to civility to be had while our bombs still kill children indiscriminately. There is no polite discourse to be had while our police still murder black men and women without recourse. There is no constructive debate about whether or not transgender people can use public restrooms without endangering their safety.

This does not mean that there is no progress to be made, that this is hopeless. It means that instead of leaving the lives of our least privileged to the slow wheel of time, we need to realize that we are the ones pushing the wheel — and we need to push harder. We need to see the current system as one designed to keep the privileged few in power, and we don’t change that system by playing by its rules. There are legitimate reasons to be angry, there are legitimate reasons to not want to compromise, there are legitimate reasons to not want to debate, there are legitimate reasons to not want to participate in this corrupt system. If you find yourself lamenting the anger and divisiveness of modern-day politics, perhaps you should ask yourself, are you angry enough about injustices in our country? And are you “building a coalition” on the backs of the disenfranchised? Would a civilized society truly agree to disagree on the lives and wellbeing of its citizens?

That is not who I want to be, that is not what I want my country to be. We decide who we are. Choose compassion, not complacency.

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