Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Loss of Civil Discourse

I was pontificating over on Father Tim's blog earlier (some of which I will recycle here), and he suggested I flesh out my thoughts. Truly, the comment I left was a lengthy blog post in itself. He had posted an opinion about what I would call the lack of civic discourse in this country. His aim in that post was geared more toward the civic realm. But, upon further reflection, I think I may expand on that theme just a bit. This culture has moved beyond being able to have coherent civic discourse in a reasonable tone of voice. I would argue that we can no longer even have civil discourse on virtually anything, including the weather. (Make a benign comment about the weather, and insert something about global warming and see what happens if you don't believe me...)

We live in a polarized and cynical age. I was on the bus to Minneapolis a few weeks back to check out the new Twins stadium. I did not discuss two things about that trip when I was reviewing the new Target Field because I did not think at the time it was relevant. However, the more I have reflected on that trip, the more I think it is relevant, particularly to this topic.

The first thing, which to be fair had virtually nothing to do with the Twins per se, was that the chartered bus had TVs. We were forced to endure 4 straight hours of ESPN, most of which was ESPN's sports new program called SportsCenter. Years ago, I watched SportsCenter on a regular basis because it was simple, sported reporting. Scores, best plays, and highlights. They could do it all in 30 minutes, and it was fairly balanced, and none of the announcers ever screamed.

I have not had cable television for about a year and half because neither I nor my wife really ever watched cable TV that much, except for perhaps reruns and an occasional ball game. We can rent reruns on DVD now, and most major sports games are live streamed on the internet. I listen to baseball games a lot because of the Major League Baseball radio streaming package. (20 bucks a year for every major league game, home and away radio feeds, you really can't beat it.) Not having cable for the last few years or so, I had not actually watched SportsCenter for a while, particularly over and over in a loop. I was truly amazed, and a bit disturbed, by the continuous in-your-face commentary and frenetic talking head color commentating that the SportsCenter announcers were constantly engaged in. Long gone are the days of Craig Kilbourn mouthing sports stats actually pertinent to the game being reviewed. It was not sports reporting, it was in-your-face infotainment commentary in sports form. (There is a big difference.) That, in itself, did not surprise me that much. I had stopped watching SportsCenter years ago because it had become too loud and obnoxious for my taste.

With that background, I got to Target field. I was sitting in the nose-bleed section of the outfield, i.e. the cheap seats. When you sit in the peanut gallery, you can't be too surprised when you find yourself surrounded by peanuts. I had beer spilled on me by a group of rowdies. (I assumed they were college kids, but they may have been working 20-somethings.) I have had beverages accidentally spilled on me before, again that's part of being in a crowd of sardines. What almost offended me, and I don't get easily offended, was the truly vile torrent of obscenities that were coming out of the mouth of virtually everyone in that section. Every other word was the F-bomb for several innings straight until the guys had basically waddled out because they stopped selling beer in the 7th inning and were about drunk anyway (I can't fathom how much money they wasted to get drunk on $7 a glass cheap American beer.)

I have sat in rowdy sections before and it has not bothered me as much. Maybe I am more sensitive to things like this now that I have a young daughter, but I thought long and hard on the drive back home that I would be extremely leery of taking my family to such an environment in the future, which is sad because going to baseball games in a good environment is really fun.

I've reflected a lot about those incidences since I wrote my initial review of Target field. With the bizarre events today of the Big XII athletic conference imploding because of one and only one factor, [cough]money[cough], I have become very angry.

At first, I was simply angry that Americans have let the lowest common denominator (i.e. prurient, boorish behavior) overtake sports culture in this country. Then, I was angry that sports, particularly big time college football, seems to have become corrupted by avarice and greed. But as I step even further back and look at the bigger picture of culture in general, I think it is not entirely the NCAA or American sports that is primarily to blame.

I was greatly disturbed yesterday when it was announced that the Board of Regents at the University of Nebraska was going to vote by Friday on whether to leave the Big XII conference and bolt for (supposedly) greener pastures in the Big Ten conference. Part of my anger was irrational because there is a big, historical animosity between the Big Ten and the South Eastern Conference (which I grew up rooting for) that (I believe) plugs into regionalism antagonism stemming all the way back to the War between the States.

Part of my anger was not irrational, however. Although I was never a Nebraska native, I never had any problem (until now) rooting for Nebraska because I always found Nebraska to have a solid fan base that was very welcoming and sportsman-like. As this news story was breaking that Nebraska was probably going to be joining the Big Ten, I was watching my Facebook feed, and a lot of my (otherwise polite, Mid-Western) Nebraska friends in status updates (some were funny, some were frankly snotty) were already internalizing the regionalism and anti-Southern snobbery that people like myself who try to be polite Southerners have come to abhor from loud mouths in the Big Ten. Not all Big Ten people are loud mouths or anti-Southern, but that is how Southerners, who are sensitive to being historically and constantly slighted by our neighbors in the North, perceive the Big Ten in general. It frankly turned me off. I honestly do not think I can be a Nebraska fan in good conscience anymore because I feel that Nebraska and its fans have sold their birthright and integrity for a bowl of pottage and have already gotten sucked into the latent regional snobbery that historically never existed in places like Nebraska.

My wife, who is a Nebraska grad, made the point last night (as she was about in tears over my ranting about Nebraska selling out), that politics and sports are basically two sides of the same coin in terms of discourse. The more I have thought about it, both are symptoms the a disease that affects the body politick in this country. I abhor talking politics. I have political opinons; I read papers; I vote. But I don't like talking politics (particularly with parishioners) because people cannot do so anymore in a civil tone of voice if the topic or party of the person they are discussing politics with differs in any way, shape, or form.

I think brings me back around to my initial comments on Fr. Tim's blog. Most people in the under 35 crowd idolize people like Jon Stewart of the Daily Show or The Onion website, both harsh satirists. What I was trying to get at in that comment was to ask the question, "How did we get to this place where we can't talk to each other anymore?"

Watergate was probably the Genesis of the current culture. The Generation X crowd largely was a drop out generation. They don't join churches or civic groups or bowling leagues. There was an interesting treatise on this phenomenon about 10 years ago called Bowling Alone that has always been in the back of my mind.

Oftentimes in Seminary, there were discussions of why the Church is shrinking. The knee-jerk liberal reaction was always the Spong-ian "the Church must change or die." In other words, its all the church's fault for not being hip enough, or whatever. I would always pose the question that maybe it is something bigger than what the Church is doing or not doing, because all civic groups from the Masons to Bowling Leagues largely declined over the period when the Generation X-ers came of age.

Generations tend to follow a four generation cycle. You have a builder generation (for example the WII generation), a questioning generation (60's counter culture), a drop out generation (Gen X'er MTV generation), and a joining generation (Gen Y/Millenial crowd), at which point the cycle starts over. Perhaps that is simplistic, but it seems to be holding true. The Gen Y crowd seems to be much more community oriented, doing more community service, joining more civic groups, coming back to church more (provided the church actually evangelizes). They don't tend to rebel as much as the 60's crowd did, but likewise be more engaged than the X'er crowd, and it drives the leftover Hippies and Drop Out X'ers crazy.

I think the toxicity and cynicism of the current culture is fueled by the Millenial crowd having grown up watching the Gen X "boomerang" generation check out from civic society, but also growing up in a culture of no heroes, particular in the civic or sports realms. There have been scandals of all sorts. The Gen Y crowd is pretty much resigned to the fact that we will never see any money from social security when we retire because the Baby Boomers have left a horrendous debt/mess for us to grapple with. And the cycle will likely be that the millenial's kids will be the ones that have to rebuild, with the Gen Y/Millenial crowd paving the way.

All this, combined with the plethora of infotainment/news media that reinforce the individual's pick-n-choose politics and relativist outlook on objectivity and absolute truth, lead to an abyss of passive aggressive toxic civic culture. I think the Millennial crowd, what with texting and twittering, are more connected social (if virtually) but also more disconnected. Because they are addicted to texting and electronic means of communication skills, interpersonal and conflict resolution skills (i.e. physically talking things out) are completely lacking. It is easier and safer to snipe back and forth over text messaging or post some passive aggressive Facebook status update that everybody will read.

Whatever the factors and motivating influences that have led us to this complete breakdown in civic discourse, I think our culture in itself has failed because we have lost the ability to see the face of God in people who don't have the same ideologies as we do. By ideologies, I mean everything from people who don't vote like us to people who don't root for the same team as we do. Until such time, I am resigned to the fact that civil discourse is lost to our culture because it is more important for us to be right than to be the children of God in the community that God has ordained for us to be in.

1 comment:

Keith said...

First let me tell you that I am an Illinois grad and a priest, so it's best you know my bias upfront. It should be known that when Penn State moved to the Big Ten, it made more money from the research grants that the Big Ten controls, than the money they got from sports. With that off my chest, you are right about the civil discourse in our culture at this point in time. At one point in time we were capable of making heated arguments without thinking that the other person was evil. I believe that we think that unity means that we all have to be the same and think the same. It's ok if you want to be IBM, but it's not ok if you want to be the church that God wants us to be in this world. For example, I know that you and I will disagree on what is happening with Nebraska, but it would be a shame for one of us to leave, because we will not be respected for our views. Besides, if we ever met a conference during football season, the conversation would be lively and informative, but if we really do see Christ in each other, then such passions should not lead us to hate one another. To me that is fun of living in God's diverse world.