September 13, 2009 in Opinion

On reclaiming civil discourse

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Whatever it was that was so shocking about South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst during President Barack Obama’s health care speech on Wednesday, it wasn’t the simple breach of decorum. Decorum, if you haven’t noticed, is extinct. We lost it long ago.

I’ve become increasingly sensitive to its departure, not only because of what goes on daily in the news – or the cable TV screechfests that pass for news – but also because of the sour tone of political discourse that takes place in The Spokesman-Review’s own letters column.

And whose fault is that?

Years ago, when the late Bill Cowles was publisher of The Spokesman-Review and I was early in my first run as editorial page editor, we talked about the philosophy behind letters selection. I proposed a highly selective process, favoring the most erudite letters from the most credentialed writers. He reminded me that thousands of community residents had no means of letting their voices be heard if we didn’t make our forum available.

How do you argue with that?

In those days, you didn’t. People had more manners, and when you invited them onto your pages, they wiped their feet first. They could make their case with spirit and vigor but stay within the bounds of civility.

So much has changed. Today, an elected member of the House screams insults at the president of the United States, in the middle of a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress.

Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, has a theory that the division between public and private – between the emotions we might unleash in a personal setting and the etiquette we would practice when the world is watching – is crumbling.

Tannen, whose book “The Argument Culture” came out in 1998, told me in a telephone interview that she feared at the time that she might have waited too long to write it, that the trend toward argument-by-default discourse in the United States might have peaked. Instead, she observed when I asked her on Friday about the Joe Wilson incident, it is still “ratcheting up.”

Is it ever.

Spokesman-Review Editor Gary Graham sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago, wondering about a recent letter to the editor in which the writer took pains to refer to Obama by his middle name, Hussein. Gary and I both know what’s going on here, namely a not-so-subtle strategy to identify the president with Muslims – and, naturally, extremists and terrorists. The smell of racism and xenophobia is too strong to ignore.

Yet we published the letter. Just as we previously ran letters about “Dubya” and “Slick Willie” during earlier administrations. Like me, Gary is a devout apostle of the First Amendment, but his message brought home a separate concern that requires attention.

We who oversee the Opinion pages are gatekeepers, a role we can’t abdicate. The choices we make send an influential signal to readers about the kind of conversation we want to promote.

As Tannen noted about last Wednesday’s events, at the end of the evening, the president’s speech was overshadowed by Rep. Wilson’s two words. And in a world where stage time is the gold standard, Wilson grabbed a measure of national celebrity he didn’t have before. If it worked for him, others will follow his example, and on it goes.

The same danger lurks on the Opinion pages, a danger that was scant in the days when Bill Cowles schooled me in the populist merit of authentic letters to the editor, but is a serious challenge today. For the record, Bill had no patience for “gratuitous insults,” yet they seem to have burrowed their way into our pages.

It’s not a simple problem. Democracy needs to be rough-and-tumble at times, and engaged citizens need the freedom to sling their ideas around. We don’t want to choke off meaningful debate.

But with a limited amount of space in which to print a usually heavy volume of letters, we have no choice but to be selective.

I’ve heard from both sides on this issue, by the way. Some love the cage-fighting model and the smell of fresh blood. But many others decry the practice of measuring thought in decibels.

Placing the dividing line is tricky and subjective, but I’m persuaded that the quality of our letters column would benefit from more emphasis on constructive, respectful discourse. Not wimpy or syrupy, but reasoned – and without gratuitous insults.

Doug Floyd is editorial page editor of The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at dougf@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5466.

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