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Lions Roar : January 2005
56 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 KINGWELL: Notjust women. SCHROEDER:No,notjust women,butIthink women are par- ticularly affected. I recently spent the weekend with Senator Olympia Snow from Maine and she has just been pilloried. You feel like a piñata if you’re in public service today: everybody’s got a stick and they feel entitled to hit you. I think a lot of it came out of talk radio, where people felt entitled to use the meanest possible language, and it got to be funny, you know. But I don’t think it’s funny anymore. It’s curbing people from saying what they really think, because they don’t want all that unleashed against them. Maybe another reason for the meanness is all these little niches and pockets of discussion where people go. One of the problems with the Internet is that people are only communicat- ing with people who agree with them. Then if they wander out and find someone who dis- agrees, they feel entitled to go crazy. The problem from a pol- icymaker’s standpoint is that we have all these differ- ent areas where debates are going on, but how do we ever get a consensus? The good news is there are more places where discussion is happening; the bad news is, how do you ever get every- body on the same page? MARSHALL ROSENBERG: I’m involved in citizens’ groups in different countries and in the United States. The people I’m organized with don’t worry much about the media. They feel that if we are really going to get the word out, it’s got to be word of mouth, because the public media are controlled by people who are only going to let out things they want let out. So I feel that we’re going to have to get the word around through personal connections, and not over the media. What about the depth of the public discourse? To what degree are important issues being discussed seriously and with nuance? K I N G W E L L : It is very important to distinguish between vol- ume of participation and depth. What is missing in a lot of the cases, no matter how active people are, is the commitment to a larger project—the virtue of civility. The virtue of civility comes to us, in the Western tradition, from Aristotle and Cicero through the early modern thinkers. So although we may disagree, even vociferously disagree, we are together committed in this discursive project, and that con- strains what we say. We are not going to say just anything at all; we are going to try to work out our disagreements in a demo- cratic fashion that serves the ends of justice for everybody. That’s a commitment I don’t think we see on the part of average citizens. People who are involved in groups like Marshall’s may have an almost heightened version of that commitment, but they bear the burden of other citizens who don’t. SCHROEDER: I think the depth of the discussion has been impeded by the meanness. When I came to Congress and we were discussing things like the Nixon impeachment and the Vietnam War, people had strong passions but the debate would be about the issues. Today, if you bring up an issue that some- one thinks is controversial, they don’t come back at you with facts; they come back by attacking you personally. The whole debate shifts from the factual issue to defending your personal integrity. That makes for a very shallow debate. DVORKIN: One of the things that has impeded the quality of the debate is the fact that money talks in a way that it didn’t a gener- ation ago. As more and more media are com- pressed into fewer and fewer sources of owner- ship, that has an impact on the ability of local voices to express themselves, on people feeling like they have a say in events. I think that the rise of blogs and the move- ment towards independent media is a direct result of the fact that a lot of people feel that they have no place to go, other than someplace new. I think we’re in an interesting place in the development of pub- lic discourse, because people are looking for places where they can express themselves and feel that they can be heard. So you have talk radio as a kind of corporate excuse for public discourse. It is an expression of the frustration that a lot of people have because other kinds of media seem so remote and inaccessible. SCHROEDER:We noticedin thiselection year a huge surgein political books. When I took my current job at the Association of American Publishers, people said, “Political books? They don’t sell.” And I honestly think that after 9/11 the mainstream media got even more timid, more afraid to deviate from one generic message. But people knew something else was going on. They were looking for more in-depth discussion, and they turned to books. It’s amazing how many political books have come out and how well they have sold. So whether people are