Millennials Can Lead the Way In Promoting Civil Debate

Everyone seems to expect something from the younger generation, maybe unfairly. But when it comes to politics, if millennials are going to be a new generation and not just a young one, they should adopt the cause of civil debate.

Every so often, there's a national outcry about how coarse and uncivil our political debates have become. Some prominent politicians say a few words about how we need to change the tone or maybe a nonprofit gets set up to address the issue, but soon enough, things go pretty much back to the way they were. Not to say we never make progress. We've come a long way since 1856 when Sen. Charles Sumner was beaten unconscious by Rep. Preston Brooks in the Senate. But the political arena millennials are entering is one in which people routinely and blatantly demonize their opponents.

Republicans and conservatives have a familiar repertoire to choose from when they caricature Democrats, liberals, and progressives, including saying that they are unpatriotic, anti-American, or Communists who hate liberty and excellence, who don't think people should have to work, and want to make all of us dependent on government. In the other direction, Republicans and conservatives are caricatured as being racists, misogynists, xenophobes, warmongers, and Social Darwinists who don't care about the poor. And each side claims that their opponents are power-hungry extremists who don't care about facts, truth, logic, reason, or science, and who are intentionally trying to harm the economy or cause suffering.


Image credit: screenshot by Alasdair Denvil

Essentially, many in politics express the attitude that if you don't agree with them on what the right thing to do is, it must be because you don't want to do the right thing at all. Or you're just too dim to figure out what the right thing is.

But most of our political disagreements involve legitimate dilemmas. We frequently have to choose between morally desirable goals — say, aiding the needy versus rewarding the productive. And we have to make predictions about which policy will get the result we're looking for — say, lowering unemployment, or convincing a foreign regime to give up nuclear weapons. These kinds of questions don't have easy answers. But when people disagree with us on political matters, we have an unfortunate tendency to accuse them of being evil or stupid, of lacking the desire or the intelligence to do what's right.

To make matters worse, there's an awful lot of selective outrage at incivility. By and large, Republicans only protest the name-calling that comes from Democrats, and Democrats only protest the name-calling that comes from Republicans. Neither side does much to police their own members — they seem to denounce invective only when it involves criticizing their opponents. And of course, each side sees this hypocrisy in the other, and uses it as further evidence of how rotten their opponents are.


Image credit: screenshot by Alasdair Denvil

But why should civil debate be an obligation specific to millennials? Strictly speaking, it shouldn't be. We all have an obligation to champion our causes in ways that are dignified and respectful. But in politics, it's easier to get young people to start out on the right foot than to get older people to turn over a new leaf. Politicians who have held office for years or pundits who have built up an audience of millions aren't likely to admit that a big chunk of their career has been spent unfairly demonizing the opposition. To admit that they've won elections or market share by mudslinging would "tarnish their legacy"(Funny how doing the right thing sometimes leaves a stain).

This is the kind of inertia that younger people — whether it's millennials today, or another generation tomorrow — have to fight, and the best way to do it is by establishing good habits from the start. We need people who are going to stand against name-calling consistently and even-handedly. Not just when it's politically convenient, but even when it means criticizing your own party. We need people who will understand and explain the ethical dilemmas and empirical issues involved political debates, rather than just demonizing opponents as being selfish or evil or stupid.

In a way it's understandable that people lash out in politics. After all, politics is a venue in which we try to figure out how to treat other people with the respect they deserve. It involves compassion, justice, and other moral considerations. We should be passionate about it.

But there is such a thing as crimes of passion. We can't let our frustration at the opposition we face lead us to demonize that opposition. And, if we do, we shouldn't complain if our frustrated opponents do the same to us.