Point At Issue: The Lack Of Civility In Modern Discourse

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On Dec. 11, 2018, President Donald J. Trump met with Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in the Oval Office. One of the main debates during the meeting was about security along the southern border of the United States. President Trump wanted $5 billion as funding for a border wall, which he believed would strengthen the border. The meeting happened with the press present. Speaker Pelosi tried to show some restraint (after Trump had made numerous uncorroborated assertions about the construction process) saying that there are “equities to be weighed” and that they shouldn’t have “a discussion in front of the press about this.”

The debate seemed to be going nowhere, with both Trump and Pelosi-Schumer sticking to their respective positions. Trump kept insisting upon the need for a wall, which Pelosi thought was a “political promise.” To their credit, both Pelosi and Schumer insisted on keeping the government open through the solutions that they intended to provide for strengthening border security. By the end of the debate, it seemed clear where it was headed. About two minutes before the end of the 16-odd minutes of the debate, Schumer said to Trump, “One thing I think we can agree on is we shouldn’t shut down the government over a dispute, and you want to shut it down. You keep talking about it.” After a brief exchange, Trump stated: “You know what I’ll say? Yes. If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through Military, through anything you (Schumer) want to call, I will shut down the government.” And that he was “proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”

On Dec. 19, 2018, the Senate cleared a short-term spending bill that would fund the government through early 2019. The bill was sent to the House for approval. A deeply divided House voted to add $5 billion in border wall funding to the short-term spending bill. The bill passed the House’s approval by a vote of 217-185, after which it was sent back to the Senate. The Senate, however, couldn’t manage enough votes to pass the House’s spending bill, which led to a partial government shutdown by the midnight of 22 December, 2018.

While Trump was ready to take responsibility for the shutdown during the meeting on Dec. 11, 2018, on Dec. 21, 2018, he shifted the blame onto the Democrats, tweeting: “The Democrats now own the shutdown!” The government shutdown that began on Dec. 22, 2018, extended until Jan. 25, 2019, when Trump announced that they had “reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government.” Trump had agreed to a three-week short-term spending bill, but without funding for the border wall.

This isn’t the first time in Trump’s tenure that the government shut down. In early 2018, the government had shut down from the midnight of Jan. 20 to the evening of Jan. 22. The shutdown had happened because of disputes regarding the status of persons affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, and the border wall funding. The deadlock was broken after the Democrats had buckled under pressure. The shutdown happened once again, just three weeks later, on 9 February, 2018, when Senator Rand Paul objected to the bipartisan two-year spending bill. That shutdown lasted only about five and half hours, but it was a shutdown nonetheless.

 Shutdowns happen because the concerned parties in the government cannot reach a consensus about issues, which means that there is a communication breakdown. The shutdown that happened in December 2018 and stretched to the end of January 2019 was the longest shutdown in U.S. History, one that lasted 35 days. Is this a reflection on how American society functions at this time? Can’t we have arguments and debates surrounding important issues, without a complete breakdown in communications?

It does seem like an extension of how we function. President Trump is a prolific Twitter user, with about 2,843 tweets in 2018 alone. Twitter as a platform is not known for conversations between users. There is a lot of noise, especially through trolls. Even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged this aspect of the platform in a flurry of tweets on March 1, 2018. The tweets were a part of changes that Twitter was making in order to improve the content present on their platform.

Although Twitter’s strategy indicates a curation of content, it seems to veer towards censorship, according to what Twitter sees fit. Social media, however, is not the best place for conversations. We all know how trolls populate the internet but has troll culture seeped out of the internet and onto our lives? According to journalist Joel Stein who wrote about internet trolls in the Aug. 18, 2016 issue of TIME Magazine, it certainly seems to have. In the article titled “Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate,” Stein writes about how the “disinhibition effect,” a term psychologists use for “factors like anonymity, invisibility, lack of authority and not communication in real time” which have stripped away the “mores society spent millennia building.” Stein further states that this culture has seeped from “ our smartphones to every aspect of our lives.”

There needs to be an emphasis on civility in our behaviors across the spectrum. We need to re-evaluate our behavior during conversations on and offline. The internet provides a smoke-screen of sorts for us to blatantly speak our minds, without any real-time understanding of the effect our words can have. We need to understand the nature of conversations we have, and to be able to allow for a dialogue to happen, instead of having shouting matches where nobody hears each other. And for that, the solution could be as simple as listening more than we speak.