What is public discourse? Depending on the discipline one is constructing a definition from, what this term constitutes may differ. Today, I use the term public discourse to refer to communicated issues of public culture that affect individuals and groups in a given civilization. Most of our public discourse is constructed in the environment of the nation-state as that is largely the context in which public discourse takes place. Specifically, this piece is focused on the United States where the atmosphere of public discourse, from my perspective, leaves much to be desired.
The public culture is affected by a multiplicity of factors – politics, religion, ideology, economic philosophies, and individuals and groups’ conception of attitudes towards what is and what should be the values of people living in a nation-state. When we participate in communicating any of the above mentioned criteria, we are participating in public discourse. Given that some voices are more powerful than others, people do not participate in the public discourse equally or identically. Nonetheless, the state of public discourse in the United States is one that in the ideal, gives people the freedom to voice opinions, support, and grievances openly and without fear. Yet what I find are misunderstandings of this freedom, abuses of this freedom, and a severe lack of proper exercise of this freedom.
Freedom to participate in public discourse is misunderstood when people believe that they have the right to simply express ideologies and that those ideologies have to be accounted for, based solely on their ability to express them. The reality of our civilization is that even when it is due to privilege or other forms of power, some opinions are more accounted for than others. More importantly, some opinions are better formed than others whether by experience or education or simply by a better process of critical thinking. There is a troubling belief that has made its way into the public culture that wants to assert that all opinions are equal. One should be critical of the hegemony and powers that largely construct the face of public discourse, but merely having an opinion does not do so. An entitlement to an opinion does not challenge the system if it is without the necessary appreciation for what constitutes good argument, which of course is dynamic and varying in process.
More than the process of forming good arguments, perhaps what is most troubling about the public discourse as we know it currently, is the true lack of it. Now if we look around us, we might disagree. People are always expressing themselves and their beliefs. With the proliferation of the internet and the increase of media availability, it would seem that we are participating in public discourse more than ever. But if public discourse is communication and at its heart communication is an accompanied experience that involves initiated expression as well as response, then we as a civilization are failing terribly. When was the last time you witnessed and/or participated in a discussion – an important discussion with someone who you disagreed with, perhaps about abortion or marriage or the economic recession that was simply decent? In our current state of affairs we cease to have discussions with people who may believe differently than we do in a manner that is at the very least, respectful. There is this notion that because we believe in something and we have good arguments, that our own argument or way of seeing is the only one that is justified and of value.
I like to give the example of political viewpoints because being someone who is purposefully unaffiliated from a party or ideology; I still have both moderate and strong positions depending on the issue at hand. I also still love to participate in a healthy political discussion. Yet I find myself wanting to participate less and less because the environment I find myself in is an environment that is opposed to opposition. We are in an environment in which groups are becoming more and more polarized and failing to engage in authentic discourse because they do not want to know or understand the perspective of people who see differently from them. People who seek moderation or who want to wrestle and weigh issues are given the opportunity to do so less and less because of notions that the only option is to be 100% for something or 100% against it. We fail at public discourse every day when we insist that any conversation that does not agree with our position is one that is inherently bad.
We are constantly in communication about the public culture. We are constantly participating in public discourse. We participate by what we choose to voice, by what we choose to consume, in elections, in town hall meetings, on social media, etc. But in the current state of public discourse, I fear that we are losing our capacity to determine what constitutes a well-informed opinion. I fear we are losing the capacity to be compassionate and to see the value of opposing arguments of value. We are also constantly failing at re-evaluating our own positions. Above all, we are continuously just placing blame, which has very little worth for any of us in public discourse. Most of us are just trying to say, do, and believe the right things in our participation and we should; we ought to. But if our public discourse continues to be left found wanting the way it is in its current state, one cannot foresee an optimistic future for the public culture.