Dystopian Divergence and Our Civic Crisis
Recently I posted an initiative regarding homeless camping in Santa Cruz on two very different local Facebook groups. The initiative, which wasn’t mine, garnered a substantial amount of feedback, but mainly of varying extreme positions, limiting the amount of real dialogue that could take place. In one group I was labelled a “fascist, conservative who has no compassion”, and in the other I was attacked as being a “liberal, brainwashed university student”, neither of which is true, by the way.
And even when I was open about the fact that the idea in question was not mine, and that I was merely attempting to promote a discussion by asking questions, I was treated with even more disdain. However, this is sadly what I have come to expect. This sort of experience has been largely emblematic of most of my online experiences regarding new policy ideas: vitriolic, condescending and completely fueled by emotion. This is the crux of our civic crisis, that we cannot even begin to discuss differences, even on the local level, without resorting to name calling, anecdotal assumptions and general personal attacks.
Now homelessness is fairly complicated issue, and there exists a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints on specific policy, but these types of reactions are completely unwarranted and unhelpful. The facebook groups I posted on share many of the same members, but have largely divergent opinions because of one common factor. In both groups vocal minorities quickly jump into any and all discussions, dominate the discourse (if there were allowed any) and viciously go after dissenters. What’s the result? I get private messages from people in both groups regularly who express that while they appreciate my input and attempts to foster meaningful conversation, that they simply cannot participate because of the hostile climate that exists.
This problem isn’t an isolated occurrence either. On every online forum I visit I find the same tactics and general hate mongering by a few dedicated, usually extreme individuals. From the Washington Post’s national political pages to the local pages of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and my hometown Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat, the comments section of each are filled with the most combative, pointless, exaggerated claims of self-righteous correctness, laden with the eerily similar denunciations of all forms of disagreement. Think the Affordable Care Act is working? You are immediately labelled as a government leaching liberal. Believe in the second amendment? You might as well have the blood of every gun massacre on your hands personally. It’s enough to drive any sane person away from these conversations. Which are unfortunately the exact conversations we need to have, if we are ever going to solve any of the problems we face. Yet this is how I imagine a large portion of our country feels today, and this, I believe, is the reason why people dislike politics in general, and even worse, why they have no idea what civics even is.
The way I see it, civics is about process. It’s how a bill becomes law, it’s who has authority over the approval of a pipeline, or on an even more basic level, it’s how our roads are funded and where we get our water supply. Politics is about values. It’s what we perceive to be right versus wrong, about whether something is a right versus a privilege, about what political party or ideology I stand for.
And here is the common misconception, that just because our politics are different means that our civics have to be too. That the rules of debate, i.e common courtesy and respect, apparently don’t apply when someone’s politics differ from yours. That dehumanization, and the creation of straw man arguments is warranted because ideology trumps all. That, god forbid, someone have a genuine disagreement with someone else about what ought to be done, without extrapolating that disagreement into a referendum on who that person is.
Yes, many of the issues we need to address are of extreme importance, and many of the repercussions of such decisions will result in severe ramifications in terms of human life. But cooler heads must prevail. Collective inaction, and the failure to cede even the slightest inch of ground in an ongoing debate results in something far worse, the stagnation of progress. No one wins in a game in which neither side abides by the rules. No genuine response to a problem can be expected to have any effect unless the process by which we arrive at that response is legitimate. Civics must transcend politics, process must transcend position.