A Threat to Public Discourse
Christopher B. Kulp
As the November election approaches, we brace ourselves for a barrage of last-minute campaigning. If recent history is any guide, much of it will be negative.
Although many people have decried the general deterioration of civility in U.S. politics, I am especially concerned about one way public discourse often goes wrong: our proclivity to demonize our opponents. By that I mean characterizing those with whom we disagree as morally bankrupt, or at least as approximating some such deplorable state.
Even though demonization has been around since time immemorial, I and many others think we are seeing more of it recently. Consider, for example, the tenor of discourse between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, between AIDS activists and animal-rights proponents, between environmentalists and loggers, African Americans and whites, immigrants-rights advocates and their anti-immigration opponents.
All too often, exchanges among these and other such groups deteriorate into character assassination, smear campaign, and abuse. There are good reasons for concern about this sort of thing.
One reason is the adverse effect demonizing our opponents has on the kind of public discourse democracy needs to succeed. Democratic societies require the free exchange of ideas among a populace willing and able to make informed judgments about them. But if we fail to engage in the rational examination of ideas and seek instead to work our will through vilification and personal attack, the democratic process is subverted.
We become less able to see the strengths and genuine weaknesses of alternative viewpoints. Public discourse becomes more focused on the acquisition of power and less on the pursuit of truth, more enamored of sensationalism and less attentive to the deeper issues of our times, more interested in personalities and less in the plausibility of the policies these persons advocate. Emotionalism usurps reason; cant and prejudice prosper — and democracy suffers a dearth of meaningful social dialogue.
There are also more directly moral reasons for concern. To demonize someone goes beyond saying he is mistaken or misguided. It is, as a rule, to denounce his character and to do so in moral terms. The moral status of one's character, however, is closely tied to the moral status of one's intentions. Thus, it is a conceptual confusion to say that a person's character is evil even though her intentions are good.
But now we enter murky waters: Judging a person's intentions is a notoriously difficult business. For one thing, intentions are often remarkably opaque to others. For another, even if we know what a person's intentions are, it is frequently hard to assess them.
Suppose, for example, that someone advocates a social policy with which you strongly disagree — say, capital punishment — and grounds her judgment on a well-developed theory of justice that you nonetheless reject: retribution. Are her intentions, and thus her character, evil? And what should she say about you?
Now, none of this is to imply that we are incapable of rendering sound assessments of moral character. Nor is it to imply that there aren't genuinely bad people or that we should refrain from denouncing evil when we see it. I'm quite confident, for example, that Adolf Hitler was a bad man, and I would argue that we have a duty to say so.
But Hitler is an easy case. Considering how liable we are to error in more ordinary cases and considering the gravity of what is at stake, wisdom counsels caution. A person's reputation, well-being, and life's prospects may well be jeopardized when we malign her.
Furthermore, the respect that is everyone's moral due demands that we take seriously our responsibility to avoid such injustice. When we lightly make injurious allegations or, worse, when we do so for mere tactical advantage, we do wrong — sometimes grievous wrong.
Finally, demonizing our opponents invites a like response, which in turn degrades public discourse. Publicly attack a person's character, and he will likely attack yours, probably with little concern about the accuracy of his charges. Then you become outraged, and off we go.
The result is an escalating spiral of hostility that does more than harm you and your antagonist; it contributes to a climate of public ill will and distrust that magnifies our differences, hardens opposition, and makes productive dialogue immeasurably more difficult.
I am not calling for public discourse to emulate the etiquette of an afternoon tea; the issues are too complex, the need for vigorous pursuit of truth too important, the claims of those marginalized by society too pressing to wish other than a tradition of robust public discussion.
What I am calling for is more responsible treatment of our opponents, even when our disagreements run deep. That means retaining a healthy appreciation of our own fallibility in judging others and the ends they endorse. That means according our disputants the respect and consideration with which we desire to be treated.
There is nothing weak or submissive, nothing traitorous or dishonorable, in showing decency to others. On the contrary, morality requires it, as does the welfare of our embattled democracy.
Christopher B. Kulp is an associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and serves on the Center Steering Committee. He is the author of The End of Epistemology (Greenwood Press, 1992), editor of Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming), and is working on a book on the theory of moral knowledge.
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 7, N. 3 Fall 1996.