OP-ED: Civility is dead. What can we do about it?


This opinion-editorial was written by Suan Sonna, freshman in political science and philosophy. If you would like to write an op-ed with the Collegian, send us an email at opinion@kstatecollegian.com to get started.

We are at war, and our democracy is dying.

Some would consider this statement reactionary and pessimistic, but I disagree. It is the most brutally honest statement about our country’s toiling. We are growing increasingly tired: tired of traditional norms, of hope and the possibility of unity. We are fighting for validation and redemption from a seemingly hopeless and disenchanted world. I conclude that our politics have become not merely a clash of ideas, but a clash of religions.

What I mean by “religion” is simply a deeply held set of beliefs about the world, morality, our destiny and human nature. Numerous political thinkers and psychologists like Steven Pinker of Harvard or Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution have determined that our political worldviews depend on grandiose assumptions. Therefore, I think it is safe to make the comparison between our bickerings today and the rivalries between fundamentalists of different religious traditions.

We are, in my view, beyond civility. Undermining the fundamental notion of civility is the idea that there is something worth preserving. For modern civility activists, like myself, a common sense of identity, camaraderie and home is that unifying motivation.

However, my experiences have led me to the conclusion that civility is dead.

I believe there are some who really do not want our nation preserved or for our society to endure. Though they do not explicitly express such ideas, their philosophies point elsewhere. For them, it seems, a loss of order or of people they deem rivals would accrue either their highest praise or lukewarm indifference.

Their underlying belief is if every institution or tradition can be deconstructed for some new utopia, then that is best. Though they have no forward-looking vision, they know that the current order is ripe for demolition. Moreover, anyone who disagrees with their orthodoxy is deemed a heretic that must be punished or sacrificed to their abstract deities.

This clash is evident in the chalk inscriptions of pro-life and pro-choice views around campus. Some of the writings were doused in coffee, written over, scrubbed away or snarkily rebutted. This is evident in our debates over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh. If we say we want more evidence, we are accused of not believing survivors and upholding the patriarchy.

We have done away with “innocent until proven guilty” and instead replaced fairness with identity politics and public opinion. Some friends tell me they believe the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is a mechanism to favor the privileged. I wonder what they would say if they were ever accused of anything. Would they be thankful for that doctrine or still opposed, willing to be deprived of their names and freedom at the whim of public opinion?

I recall after an online debate with a feminist friend of mine that we were essentially agreeing on the same points but differing in emotional demeanor. For example, I tend to focus on arguments and evidence, sometimes appearing indifferent. She assesses arguments and cares about the social message being relayed to the broader national conscience.

We agreed, in the end, that we need good evidence and that we should not throw anyone in jail on merely an accusation. Her objection was to how I seemed unsympathetic, when, in reality, that is my perceived temperament on issues.

It is indeed tempting to just look at my status as a man or my political opinions and form preconceived notions of the kinds of views I’ll hold. However, our conversation revealed that we share many of the same concerns for survivors and there are more complexities than both of us could have imagined.

The fact we have forgone evidence and straight reasoning, however, should awaken us to the reality that we are a deeply wounded nation. We carry feelings of guilt, despair and loneliness. We are trying, as hard as we can, to construct a better world.

I am reminded of what psychologist Henri Nouwen writes in The Wounded Healer, “Most people are convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the world in which they live and feel that cooperation with existing models of living constitutes a kind of betrayal to self … They share a fundamental unhappiness with their world and a strong desire to work for change, but they doubt deeply that they will do better than their parents did, and they almost completely lack any kind of vision or perspective … Thus, modern generations are seeking desperately for a vision, an ideal to dedicate themselves to – a ‘faith,’ if you want.”

I have ultimately come to the conclusion that there is no solution, except for the sheer will of people to forgive and understand. The only way we will ever heal as a nation is if people put their defenses down and try to embrace their neighbor as another human being.

But I am deeply pessimistic in this regard. Our political fights are clashes of religious proportion, disrupting our fundamental sense of worth and identity. Many feel as if agreement or empathy with the “other” signals complicity and defeat.

If that is your view, then I can only watch as you destroy this nation.

If your worldview is that fragile, your sense of identity that wounded and your fear that pervasive, then I extend my arm in friendship as the final token of hope I can salvage. I will listen and attempt to understand you.

I cannot, however, work with a spirit that is beyond reason and intent on destruction. But, if there are any of you who are willing to create a better world by engaging in dialogue with me and your fellow human beings, then I welcome you to the only cure for our nation’s decay—friendship.

As of now, however, civility is dead.

Suan Sonna is a freshman in political science and philosophy. The views and opinions expressed in this opinion-editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

I’m Olivia Rogers. I graduated with dual degrees in philosophy and political science in May 2020. After I graduated, I went on to attend law school at Notre Dame. While at the Collegian, I served as the community editor for several semesters, working to share the opinions of the K-State student body. I write because: “Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”― Madeleine L'Engle