Civility on the Decline — A Crisis in Free Speech and Violence

Professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist mentioned how males tend to be more skilled than females at civil discourse. He opines the reason behind that was because all face-to-face discussions between males were backed by the underlying threat of violence.

Males tend to be better at logical and controlled debates because males are used to holding back the utterance of ill-advised verbal insults at each other, lest they assume the risk of being met with violence. For instance, an insufferable cis-gender male stupidly running his mouth causing insult to another cis-gender male will likely be met with a fist, whereas women are less likely to retaliate with physical force.

So it wasn’t surprising when I read on USA Today that Professor Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit) decided it’s time he deleted his Twitter account. He cited the lack of meaningful thought and civil discourse as the principal reason for leaving Twitter.

In psychologizing this incident, perhaps Professor Reynolds’s frustration with Twitter had reached that boiling point of anger, leading to that feeling of violence mentioned by Dr. Peterson had the stupidity and toxicity experienced on Twitter spilled over into the real world offline. The latest outrage of the mobs on Twitter hunting down a 16 year old boy for smiling is simply another instance of the vile poison festering on Twitter.

I was never a fan of Twitter myself, and Professor Reynolds broadly explained how the poisonous climate of incivility and thoughtlessness present no constructive utility to its users. Those of us (like myself) who have been complaining about the destructive culture of malevolent trolling take grim satisfaction in all these prominent users who, ultimately revolted by Twitter, now seem to be abandoning the platform.

The inability to communicate properly stems from the inability to think properly

However, what we are discovering is wrong with American public discourse was wrong with it before social media reached its fever pitch and would still be wrong with it if social media did not exist, or even if Twitter were replaced by a platform of moderated authority which forces participants to be civil.

It is paradoxical how in today’s era of unprecedented access to information exchange, the American public appears not to be interested in employing full use of this technological improvement to cultivate great conversations. Rather, the cultural trend of public discourse online seems to be heavily tilted toward a sort of nihilistic enjoyment of destructive conduct. Vicious statements tearing something down are preferred over constructive acts of productive discourse whereby everyone benefits.

The essential trouble is not just that we are producing too few civilized, thoughtful and constructive conversations on social media (even though that is the case). Our failure I fear goes much deeper than that, because the origin of this failure has its roots in the failure of the American public education system. We have reached the apex of the intellect’s destruction by the American schools and the results are what we can observe in the public’s inability to communicate properly.

In terms of communication, people will say what they think. The problem with the sad state of civil discourse today occurs because people are mostly really bad at thinking. The dismal failure of the education system is what created our poisonous public discourse.

The public’s inability to think is caused by the failure of the education system

The poisonous climate of public discourse we are witnessing online and on social media is merely the most explicitly observable symptom of this failure in education. Just like the tip of the iceberg hides the enormous danger of what lies below, today’s trend of public incivility online conceals within it a deeper threat than just the problem of horrible behavior in cyber space.

The fundamental problem is how the education system is actively destroying the public’s ability to think and reason. Progressive education, (including higher education) has produced far too few men who are prepared for the responsibilities of life in a free society. It has created a mass of citizens incapable of properly engaging their cognitive faculties in order to conduct thinking in a rational and thoughtful manner.

How progressive education destroyed thinking

This degeneration of the public’s ability to think did not occur instantaneously. The destruction of reason and logic was a gradual process, spearheaded by the adoption of postmodernist subjectivity in the late 1960s and pushed into the American schools since then. Leonard Peikoff in this 1984 Ford Hall Forum Lecture elaborated the specific and technical details in regards to the problematic teaching methods (a link to that lecture for those who are curious and interested).

Professor Peikoff found from his research that the overarching problem of the education system is the failure to train the intellect in reasoning. The ill training of every mind in the American schools produces students that are incapable of thinking in rational concepts. A concept is an integration of concretes into a new mental unit. Minds that are unable to think in concepts can only think in fragmented concretes because conceptual thinking is how we connect and relate data from our perception. In simple English, students are taught how to feel (perception), not how to think (conception).

Progressive education encourages feeling over thinking

Those of us who are partial to objectivity are instinctively aware that classroom methods of encouraging feelings and emotion are fundamentally problematic. Children are encouraged to express what they feel when it comes to understand the world around them. For example; climate change feels bad because humans are destroying the planet. Capitalism feels bad because we are exploiting the poor. Masculinity feels bad because males oppress women. Environmentalism feels good because we are saving the planet. Socialism feels great because we take care of the poor in society. Feminism feels wonderful because girls are empowered against male oppression.

The method of teaching students to “feel” (i.e. perception from senses) instead of to “think” (i.e. conception from judgement) is the problem with education. It is the reason why Johnny can’t think. Johnny’s mind hasn’t been trained to think in integrated concepts because he has always been taught to rely on his feelings. Johnny’s world is presented to him in a fragmented chaos of sensory perceptions.

What happens when the education system produces a citizenry incapable of thinking?

It is quite an interesting exercise to note how most people are unable to think in concepts. Take for example, when a criminal kills with a gun, someone who is incapable of thinking in concepts can only see the instrument of murder and thus mobilize against banning guns because they think that it is the gun itself that is responsible of the crime.

The same lack of conceptual thinking applies to those who are incapable of seeing a successful white male for his character, skills and habit as the factors shaping his success because their thinking capacity only allows them to see his gender and race as the factor which determines his success. It is the same reason why feminist women (like Amy Schumer) define themselves by their genital organs. It is the reason why they cannot see someone for their individuality as a person when that person wears a red Make America Great Again hat.

The American schools has succeeded in reducing the public’s intellect to the level of the perceptual beast. It happened when classrooms encouraged students to approach gaining knowledge of the world through their “feelings”. The world naturally does not make sense to someone who processes their scattered observations of the world through their emotions because they do not know how to put together the data they observed into structured logical thoughts. And like a lost animal incapable of making sense of the world around it, that person lashes out like a beast because the world is unintelligible around them.

Here is how we ended up with our current state of toxic political discourse where we are just one level away from outright violence. Should it surprise anyone how Twitter is the platform of choice for the most unthinking of us? It is after all the tersest and most fragmented form of discourse where its 280 character limit primes the stage for those who are the most intellectually lazy.

The virtue of thinking and its connection to civility

Thinking is extremely difficult. To be reminded of just how difficult thinking is, try to remember all the times as a child when a complicated homework assignment was such a monumental task that you’d much rather do anything else, including not doing the homework at all. Thinking and rationality is perhaps today’s most chronically underutilized and underappreciated skill our society severely lacks.

Rational thinking is difficult because reason requires a person to be active in his thinking, and logic is a discipline that ruthlessly test the mind. Emoting, on the other hand, requires no effort. It is certainly more difficult to engage in thoughtful, witty and constructive discussions. Yelling each other down, on the other hand, is easy. Barbaric profanity is essentially the witless person’s lazy attempt at counterfeiting their importance.

The connection between enlightened civility to reason vs. the barbarism of incivility to force

Have you ever wondered why the Founders prioritized the freedom of speech as a fundamental right to be protected by the First Amendment of the American Constitution? There is a distinctively important explanation for it. The Founders were a product of The Enlightenment, an era in human history when men were graced with excellent, rational education. The Founders understood the importance of open civic discourse because they understood that the laws we enact for our government are sourced from the rigorous debates of public dialogue.

In his book “Civility”, Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter reminds readers that the ‘law is violence’ citing the late, great legal scholar Robert Cover’s “Violence and the Word”. Even in a free society, the government still holds the monopoly of force because the government enforces the law. Government powers are however restricted by the boundaries of law. The State’s monopoly on force are checked by the citizens through their ability to determine the laws they legislate. And this is done through voting.

The First Amendment is therefore important because the First Amendment guarantees its citizens the freedom to argue and to discuss. A revealing mark of an enlightened man in a free society is his ability to express himself civilly as he persuades another through reason and rational thought. Contrast this to an authoritarian society like China and Russia, where under their façade of stability lies a barbaric government which does not endorse free speech. Needless to say, societies that brutally repress the freedom of thought and expression do not uphold the virtue of reason either.

A society’s culture determines its Laws

In The Declaration of Independence, the Framers of The American Constitution wrote: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. The ‘consent of the governed’ includes the citizens’ participation in the making of Laws. In a free society, it is the people who set up their government.

The Constitution is the source of legal authority in a free country. Constitutional government derives its powers from the nation’s constituents. In words, the citizens of a sovereign nation constitute the government under which they live. A nation made up of men incapable of talking to one another civilly will be incapable of settling their political disputes rationally.

It is the very reason why a free society can only thrive under a strong civil society. Freedom and even our survival as a society depend upon civilizing influences. An uncivilized society risk a high chance of enacting laws which will result in legal horrors committed by authoritarian regimes. A barbaric culture naturally embraces barbaric laws. For instance, observe the eager adoption of barbaric sharia laws within Middle Eastern societies.

What can we do?

Tying everything together, it should be clear now why Professor Reynolds, a specialist in the matters of law, would be revolted by the degeneration of public discourse into the vile, primitive incivility of emotional outburst and malicious anger on Twitter.

The internet democratized political rhetoric when it opened up our public forums to include the participation of the common man. Everybody now has a voice when in the past, only the establishment elite were provided access to an audience. It is precisely for this reason why the habit of careful reflection and the exercise of self-control is proper to civilized men.

Laws are made by men, and if men are incapable of persuading one another through rational dialogue, men will, in turn, degenerate into threatening each other with the use of force. A vivid example from history is when Congress during the debate on the issue of slavery, broke out into violence on the floors of both Houses. This violence ultimately leads the nation into the Civil War.

It pays to remember how the law is inherently violent. An important part of a functional civil society is the society’s enactment of just and moral laws. We the people enact these laws, and if we the people are barbaric and uncivilized, we will, in turn, ordain onto ourselves barbaric and uncivilized laws.

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