America’s rhetorical sphere has descended into chaos
Healthy civilizations hinge on being able to decide things through discussion and debate. That debate must be based on honest, accurate information that leads to conclusions based on the prevalence of reason. America’s rhetorical sphere today is sorely lacking in those standards. Raw emotion and rage have replaced reasoned debate, and falsehood is a key tool in manipulating public argumentation. Chaos dominates the nation’s deliberations.
Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned years ago of the connection between rampant falsehoods in public dialogue and violence in a society. Reason has pretty much left the American marketplace of ideas today: Spin, concoction, and misdirection prevail. Violence, in the rhetorical and literal sense, as Solzhenitsyn forewarned, is also now thriving in America’s sociopolitical arena.
The chaotic political climate was supposed to have settled down after four years of mean tweets out of the Trump White House. The hoped-for return to measured and rational political dialogue never got out of the starting gate. A recent Rasmussen Reports study shows a full two thirds of Americans now believe the nation is even more divided than when Trump left office. That’s really saying something. Further, that survey was conducted before the Supreme Court leak about an upcoming abortion ruling.
Evidence of the nation’s communication chaos emerges daily, as passion overwhelms thinking. A rich guy named Elon announces plans to buy a social media platform, and an online mob goes berserk. CBS host Gayle King responds to the tragic shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., by claiming that “racism is mainstream” in America. The New York Times is so intimidated by cultural antagonists that it removes the word “fetus” from Wordle. A Supreme Court nominee is afraid to define the word “woman.” And so it goes, in a rhetorical climate of fear and anger.
The Department of Homeland Security planned to set up a Disinformation Governance Board, a move that totally puts the First Amendment on its head. Constitutional framer James Madison expected citizens to monitor the government’s information practices, not the other way around. Nearly half of Americans believe such a board would be a political weapon “used primarily to silence opposing views.”
The leak of the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling draft was an intentional attempt to inject emotional bedlam into an already acrimonious national debate. The Supreme Court has been one of the few remaining outposts in which careful deliberation could proceed as difficult legal matters were settled by debate. Now, abortion activists promise a summer of rage and to be “ungovernable.”
There are serious consequences to creating a chaotic public communications environment. Political opponents demonize and label each other, effectively ending sensible discussion. That condition was made clear in a study of political polarization last fall out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It showed fear and distrust now infect the minds of both sides of the political spectrum.
Another consequence is that citizens stop consuming news and thus have little factual basis on which to make judgements. People then are generally uninformed, but still feel compelled to rant on social media. Credibility deteriorates across society, even for the likes of scientists, whom nearly half of Americans now believe would falsify data to support personal views.
Make no mistake, communication chaos ultimately harms everybody. As the astute sociopolitical observer of the 20th century, Eric Hoffer, wrote, “Chaos, like the grave, is a haven of equality.” This turmoil serves a purpose for the provocateurs seeking to destabilize the culture and alter established structures and values. The destabilization leaves a void that gets filled with confusion, nonsense, and yet more rage. Everybody becomes equally miserable.
Technology has complicated the nation’s communications situation, speeding up messaging and limiting the time frame for actual thinking. A super-charged sensationalism now prevails. But modern technologies are no excuse for a nation that has lost its ability to think, reason and engage coherently in public.
Throughout American history, the rhetorical sphere has gotten cluttered with excessive emotion, falsehoods and nonsensical reasoning. But for nearly 250 years, Americans have found a way to muscle up and adhere to the principles of reasoned democracy. The nation must now dig deep to again find its way. The result of failing to do so won’t be pretty.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
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