Can self-transcendence make us more civil? Is incivility the inevitable product of a self-absorbed culture?
The name-calling, bullying innuendo, and rude speech that characterizes the political arena this election season have caused many journalists to question the effects of incivility on public political discourse generally and on children in particular. This may be because journalists see that many families are talking about the candidates with each other, some families are watching the debates together, and kids are overhearing adults discussing politicians and their actions. My own second-grader has come home from school on more than one occasion bursting with opinions about candidates from both parties. When I asked her where she got these ideas from, she told me that “all the kids” are talking about politics.
Perhaps the main reason why journalists are so interested right now in the effects of public adult incivility on children is because something about this televised incivility is causing grownups to feel guilty alarm about our own failure to model and teach civic virtue. It may seem like this alarm has come too late, and for the wrong reasons; many adults who might disagree with expressions of racism from a candidate but tolerate those expressions as free speech seem suddenly to have sprung into action only when that speech threatens to become sexually explicit. Yet—on a positive note—when parents, teachers, and others entrusted with modeling behavioral ideals increasingly feel compelled to distance themselves from the political candidates we are supposed to be teaching children and students to admire, we find ourselves critiquing not only the political system itself, but a culture that has celebrated aggressive self-promotion, boasting, and rudeness as competitive necessities.
A case in point comes from yesterday’s (March 10, 2016) New York Times story by Sarah Lyall, “The Parent-Child Discussion That So Many Dread: Donald Trump.” In it, one family watching television sends their 10-year-old out of the room when the topic in the GOP debate turns to the size of a candidate’s hands and genitals, leading to parental incredulity about the character of public political discourse. The crudity and bluster of the debates has led many teachers to preemptively address the issue of civility as a democratic virtue; in another instance in the same story, a sixth-grade teacher singles out individual candidates by name in order to talk with her students about the wrongness of making fun of people for the way they look. Most parents and teachers in the article stick to critiquing the candidates’ undesirable behavior in order to emphasize that rudeness anywhere is unacceptable, but some adults also find it useful to look at this bad behavior as the inevitable product of a self-obsessed culture. One parent, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who has a 15-year-old daughter and has written about Mr. Trump for CNN.com, emphasizes that it helped her to contextualize Trump as “a product of our branding culture and our selfie culture and our attraction to reality-show television, where the behavior is so brutal.”
Clearly many parents and teachers regard civility as a virtue, but what is also interesting here is that for this mother, at least, incivility is an inevitable product of self-absorption. Thinking only of themselves, the candidates seem to have reverted to infancy, or some sort of pre-socialized state suggested by the title of the NPR story, also from March 10, 2016: “Explaining ‘Small Hands,’ Wet Pants to Your Kids This Presidential Campaign.” Meanwhile, voters who want to show kids the admirable qualities of aspiring presidential contenders are instead using them as potent examples of virtue gone wrong. One kindergarten teacher in the New York Times article, Carolyn Lee, urges parents to be calm when talking to their children: “I would say something like, ‘We try to treat people the way we would like to be treated, and somehow he’s showing the exact opposite of that.’ ”
Is civility a virtue? Cheshire Calhoun has argued that it is not only a virtue, but a moral virtue, and that “the function of civility is to communicate basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance, and considerateness.” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 29:3, Summer 2000, p255). One reason why the news may be so interested in ‘the children in the room’ right now is because the adults in the room uneasily recognize that we are falling down on the job of communicating these basic moral attitudes. If we fall victim to the cheap entertainment of the brawl, the traded insults, the sneering innuendo, we are communicating that the pleasure of these is more valuable than than are the moral virtues we are supposed to be teaching our children and young adults.
Respect, tolerance, and considerateness are all predicated on the presence of others, and as such, demand a level of self-transcendence, a focus on something other than and larger than the self, that can’t be found in the boasts and banter of aggressive self-promotion. We may be fascinated by the bully’s low, defensive pride, but it is time for us as a nation to look elsewhere. If we don’t, we risk inculcating in the next generation cynicism and disgust towards political life, instead of sparking the self-transcendent commitment and optimism we all need to carry us forward.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.