The Public Square Is Under Attack
Our public square for debate and ideas is increasingly problematic. In years past, politicians, pundits, and parties reached a greater consensus about American society’s ideals and principles. They achieved this agreement while disagreeing on the application and implementation of those principles.
That is a crucial point: agree on principles, debate their application.
Suppose individuals, groups, and political parties can agree on shared principles. In that case, their application becomes the shared work, not a scorched earth conquest for power that we’ve seen in for the last several decades.
Behind the anger, censorship, and ‘cancel’ culture is a foundational problem:
We no longer believe that others have intrinsic value as human beings and fellow Americans.
We need to reclaim the public square for civility and debate, with a shared sense of responsibility for our shared future.
The public square is a representation of the rules of engagement for our politics and social conversations. This arena rests upon the agreement that we are foremost a republic based upon ideas.
Not history, race, ethnicity, or coercion; the newly arrived immigrant from Ghana can be just as American as the descendant of German refugees who arrived two hundred years prior.
And baked into the republican cake is debate and engagement with those ideas for each generation. This debate happens in the public square, where voices and interests gather to argue over their ideas’ merits. Not power, influence, or money, but ideas.
It’s the lack of this idea-based debate that is increasingly concerning.
We have a political culture run by warlords, each roaming the landscape looking for loot and power, gathering up followers into their bands. These warlords engage not in the actual work of governance and leadership but political theater, pandering to the crowds for applause and validation.
It’d be cleaner if we could say that one set of people, factions, or parties was more righteous, knowledgeable, and transparent than the others. But each appears focused on using whatever means necessary to gain power. And once gaining that power, they forget the concerns and interests of their opposition.
Our tilting toward censorship and ‘cancel’ culture is especially dangerous for the public square. We either agree that free-speech is a shared principle, or we decide that the powerful get to make the rules for the public debate according to their fancy, as they have the opportunity.
The divisions don’t go away because we deny someone a public platform. The disenfranchised set up alternative and parallel systems, networks, and economies. They don’t become silent; they become hidden in the shadows.
We don’t want the shadows. The shadows brew noxious stews.
We want our disparate parties, ideas, and perspectives out in the open, refining each other even as they clash.
What Comes Around
When our differing politics and points of view become a continual existential crisis, the public square becomes not an arena but a bloodbath. Folks are losing money, jobs, and careers because they express unpopular or off-script ideas. Or times change, and now their faction is out of power. When folks talk of “purges”, everyone’s warning lights should come on.
When the personal price is exorbitant, the public square is no longer genuinely public; folks stay home and give attention only to their tribe/camp. They disavow the value of their opposition as fellow citizens, particularly when that opposition responds in kind.
What goes around comes around. Maintaining a posture of scorched-earth political and social engagement means that when your opposition recovers influence and power, they will inevitably treat you with the same hostility.
What’s To Be Done?
A republic without a democratic and accessible public square is in a tough spot. If we cannot openly debate our ideas without devolving into abuse and chaos, we cannot engage with our civil society’s foundational aspect.
It’s convenient to assign the blame (and hence the solution) to the government. But the government is merely a man made institution, comprised of men and women like us, each with failings and limits.
The real work starts with ourselves and our households. We need to guard our thoughts and words. We need to leave room in our perspectives to learn something from the other side. Someone may be wrong in one area but have appropriate solutions in another.
Debate ideas in your household. Think critically about your opinions. Foster respect for others and their views, even as you disagree. The Democrat/Republican next door might not be the boogeyman we believe they are. The liberal/conservative across the street might not be the walking embodiment of civilization’s end.
Private citizens who are willing to express their ideas in an atmosphere of civil debate comprise the public square. And that public square is currently not well attended. So let’s leave the private echo chambers and head out the door to meet each other.
Have you clarified your political and social views? How do you view people who hold the opposite view?
Start today: the next time you feel the urge to slam or bash the opposition, check yourself and say: what can I learn from these folks? What areas are they right about? Where’s there a common consensus?
Originally published at https://fjwriting.com on January 20, 2021.