Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby ruined my New Year’s Eve. His final column of 2009, “New Adventures in Incivility” interrupted my annual effort to prioritize self-improvement strategies for the incoming year, a mental ritual that has usually been an effective distraction from excessive brooding about ominous trends in The Big Picture.
However, “New Adventures in Incivility” ends with a gloomy forecast that captured my attention: “Gross and abusive rhetoric was a hallmark of the 2000s. I shudder to think how low public discourse will go in the 2010s.”
Jeff’s shuddering vision rekindled my chronic brooding about the impacts that the “bottom feeding” tendencies in our public discourse are likely to have on our collective well being in the years ahead.
But his gloomy prognosis also generated an empathic question: “What changes would have to take place in the U.S. during the next decade for Jeff to write the following on 12/31/2019:
I want to acknowledge that the vision about public discourse I shared ten years ago today was unduly pessimistic. I did not appreciate that in 2009 our civic culture had hit “bottom” and that a widespread movement to “cut the crap” in public squares was about to begin.
Since then, I have observed that our elected leaders, talk show hosts and guests, advocates and other civic players have indulged in less trash talk. There has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of verbal flaming, “smoking” and demonizing that takes place in public squares of all kinds. As new role models of civil engagement and respectful disagreement have been publicized, and communication-upgrading resources of many kinds have become widely accessible, verbal “smoking “ in public has become as uncool as tobacco smoking did in its time— and distracted driving is becoming now.
In short, the civic climate has changed in promising ways. Cooler mouths have fostered fresher air, clearer heads, and more bipartisan and effective approaches to our collective problems.
I hope you will be writing something like this ten years from now, Jeff. Meanwhile, I am going to chew on these questions: 1) What happened that allowed you to write such an upbeat column in 2019? How did the civic climate evolve and change for the better? What behavioral and systemic shifts generated more light and less dysfunctional heat in public squares across the county? 2) What role did I and the Public Conversations Project play in making these shifts happen?
If you too “shudder” from time to time as you contemplate the current state of public discourse, if my questions intrigue you, if you share my interest in catalyzing a civic climate change movement, please be in touch and spread the word.
Depolarizers of the nation unite! We have nothing to lose but our humanity and a viable future.
Founder and Board Chair
Public Conversations Project
January 25, 2010