What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.