The runup to Scotland’s Devolution vote last month included, on this American side of the Pond, an opportunity to witness how civic engagement “over there” could be undertaken with both interest (a voter turnout of about 84%) and social media discussion among those of different stands in which the stand, rather than the shouting power of each discussant, tended to dominate. During the same time period, the case of the peremptory retraction of a signed and sealed tenure position at the University of Illinois-Urbana erupted in what amounted to blazes of emotionally supercharged shouting in the same social media venues. The UIU event, in terms of no emotional holds barred appeals to human tendencies other than reason, was itself relatively tame when contrasted with daily troll outbursts, putatively addressing a vast swath of concerns, on local news sites all over the US.
Civic engagement, American-style, seems to come in decibels, while, in at least one other place, civil discourse flows from and to the ear and the brain before emerging as sound walls through the mouth. Civility has that interesting capacity to keep the argument focused on what makes the argument important, while our fractious, post-Puritanical emotional outbursts reduce whatever discourse might have been to the byproduct of cinders heaped on the quieter, slower speaker.
Yes, post-Puritanical: thererin lies the rub. While we have spent the past 250, 75, 50, and even 10 years outgrowing the rigid demands the Puritan culture winners hardwired into our civic building, we seem to have grown an increasingly untrammeled bulge of emotion-makes-right in the muscle we put to engaging with our civic interests. Instead of building toward community, we seem bent on building away from accepting diversity in member opinion. While anger at injustice can be a good and powerful engine toward unifying for change, we don’t limit ourselves to choosing when to anger for change’s sake and when to blast for the apparent delight of outyelling others. The end result isn’t civic engagement. It’s civil distress.