Professor Amir Hussain teaches comparative religion at Loyola Marymount University. Sometimes, as you can imagine, his students get into heated discussions. Not long ago, one of them called another one a “fascist.” Hussain stopped the class and asked the name-caller if he knew what a fascist was.
The student couldn’t define it.
“That’s when I realized,” Hussain said, “He just thought ‘fascist’ meant ‘bad.’ ”
Welcome to the sorry state of civil discourse.
Barack Obama is a “socialist” — another word few people who use it can define — Republicans are “fascists,” and this week, during a White House address, some crack typist from Tucker Carlson’s Web site shouted down the president of the United States.
If it’s true, as Eric Hoffer once wrote, that “rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength,” then we as a nation must be feeling pretty weak.
Our civil discourse has descended to the level of a Huffington Post blog comment — is anyone else frightened at what this means about an election season that is just getting started and will be drowning in unlimited, uncontrolled bile, thanks to Citizens United?
This past Monday, I sat down with a few dozen Angelenos to talk about how our country talks.
The timing of the long-scheduled conference was a coincidence, but one day after Rodney King’s untimely death at age 47, I found myself in a conference room at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens discussing how we can, in fact, all get along.
Fourteen years ago, the philanthropist Jack Skirball decided to fund an annual interfaith dialogue organized by the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Monsignor Royale M. Vadakin of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Those conversations morphed into a multicultural effort, the Intentional Conversations, and eventually Marymount College in Palos Verdes took on the role of sponsor.
There was general agreement that civil discourse in politics and the media barely qualifies as either civil or discourse.
During a panel discussion, former Congressman Mel Levine told a story of returning to the floor of the Congress as a guest and being reproached by a Democratic member for greeting a former colleague on the Republican side.
“They’re the enemy,” the Congressman said.
Levine quoted from a new book by Norman J. Ornstein, a Republican, and Thomas E. Mann, a Democrat, called, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” which traces the current deterioration in Congress back to a conscious decision by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to follow a scorched-earth strategy to take control of the Congress. (Using a graph of roll-call votes as a guide, the authors determine that polarization along party lines is at an all-time extreme, the highest level since 1879.)
Other factors deepen the problem. Our digital world makes it easy to avoid human interaction. And the media outlets we choose to watch feed, rather than challenge, our prejudices.
Professor Hussain, who was raised in Toronto by Pakistani parents, has found himself in the thick of angry exchanges teaching religion since 9/11. Yet the first book he has his students read for his course is not on Islam, but on how to watch and deconstruct TV news.
OK: Media bad; Congress worse. We know all that. What I most appreciated about this gathering of political, cultural, academic and religious leaders and activists was their focus on solutions, on how they have actively encouraged civil discourse in their lives and work.
Before every difficult discussion with people with whom they disagree, professor Hussain counsels his students to ask themselves three questions:
1. What do I know about this person?
2. What do I respect or admire about this person?
3. What do I fear or hate?
“Most of us,” Hussain said, “only ask ourselves the last question.”
But the first two questions are what open the door to civil discourse. Asking them requires a curiosity about others, a desire to hear their stories, the imagination to put yourself in their shoes, the hope that the conversation will be worth it — that your openness will be met by their own.
“Argument begins with an answer,” said conference organizer Hoyt Hilsman, a director at the Hope Street Group, a bipartisan think tank, quoting the religious scholar Martin Marty: “Conversation begins with a question.”
One sign of hope came in a presentation by Morley Winograd, senior fellow at USC Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership & Policy and co-author of “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics.” According to Winograd, the hard data shows that while baby boomers have fought bitterly over values, the millennials, the generation soon to be in charge, are more like their great-grandparents’ generation, the Greatest one.
They are the least polarized population cohort when it comes to social issues, from abortion to gay marriage. They communicate and learn across social networks, not through TV news.
“Two-thirds of millennials agree on almost any question,” Winograd said. “Millennials care about getting together and fixing things. They are a civic generation.”
At the end of the afternoon, I walked out of the conference room and onto the beautiful Huntington Garden grounds, passing some beautiful and ancient-looking classical statues. What Winograd was saying was that the boomer generation is actually just a blip, a short, bitter, historical blip. Their offspring will lift the public discourse out of the gutter and focus on fixing things. Sometimes the march of time is cruel, and sometimes kind. Who could argue with that?