Civility can eventually lead to Chesterton, or at least Jurassic Park.
Now that the debates are over, I must admit I was less than impressed. Often the tone pitched, the attacks personal. Candidates didn’t discuss why the opposition’s policy proposals might not be in the best interest of middle-class Americans. Instead, they accused the opposition of not caring about middle-class Americans. Big difference. When in closing remarks one would drop the gloves long enough to refer to the other as a devoted husband and good family man worthy of admiration and respect, it simply rang hollow. After all, he just spent 90 minutes telling everyone what a miserable wretch of a human being he is.
Civility in public discourse seems to be dead. When is the last time two candidates had a serious debate, a genuine exchange of ideas rather than accusations and zingers? One has to wonder if the debate format has been poisoned by what has become a sound-bite culture. Catholic Answers president Karl Keating may have hit the nail on the head when he recently posted on his Facebook page:
Next time around, in four years, I hope the current debate format is gone and replaced by something modeling the debates at the Oxford Union. A moderator would be present, but only to call the time and to keep the peace. The debaters would get blocks of time to present their affirmative arguments, their rebuttals, and their conclusions. There might or might not be time set aside for them to ask questions of one another.
I know, I know: wishful thinking. The present format “works” for the networks, and it “works” for lazy candidates–lazy in the sense of not having to do much more than prepare sound bites rather than sustained arguments.
And the format “works” for the American people, because, for all their vaunted educational attainments, they don’t have the capacity, most of them, to follow extended arguments, the kind that, for example, were in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Are we the problem? And the networks and candidates simply giving us what we want? In the Digital Age, the majority of us no longer have the attention span to absorb and analyze reasoned arguments. Candidates no longer champion ideas but rather simply represent ideologies. We make judgments based on 140 characters. Why bother to make a longer argument than that? Does it even matter if what’s said is true? Nah, as long as it sounds plausible at the time, people who subscribe to the worldview it represents will just go along with it. Yes, that’s a thinly veiled Candy Crowley reference.
This is one of the major challenges of the New Evangelization. Most people don’t have the attention span for fulfillment, so they opt for entertainment instead. It’s just easier and feels better. No wonder so many put politics before faith. A reasoned argument about why contraception violates fundamental human dignity just doesn’t resonate with someone whose lifestyle is no less dependent upon contraception than upon breathing air. When the search for Truth has all but been abandoned, what’s left? How do we break though?
We need witnesses. Joy (or at least civility) is still the most effective tool of evangelization, because it represents Truth in a non-threatening and completely disarming way. Plus, everybody wants it. When the frustrated ideologues start coming to us and asking us why we’re so damn happy, then we can start to make a reasoned argument.
Heck, maybe we can even quote Chesterton. “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
Yeah, it’s totally Jurassic Park 101. You know how the dinosaurs eventually ate the scientists who created them? Right before that, the scientists were probably thinking, “Dude, this was a bad idea.”
The conversation goes on from there.