Is Civil Discourse Still Possible?

May 30, 2019

by Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg


Earlier this month, the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed Ben Shapiro to discuss Shapiro’s new book, “The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great.” The interview began with a series of questions about Trump, Breitbart, abortion and other hot button issues. However, as the interview goes on, the predominant question emerges about whether or not Shapiro is partly responsible for coarsening public discourse over the years. Although Neil was abrasive in his exposition of Shapiro, the question is one worth discussing in depth.

Early in the interview, Shapiro got hung up on Neil’s harsh characterization of the Georgia abortion law as “barbaric” and a movement back to the “dark ages.” However, instead of exclusively defending the assertion that the pro-life movement is civilized and humane, Shapiro attacked Neil as a “leftist.” For the remainder of the interview Shapiro kept coming back to the leftist mischaracterization of the Georgia abortion law as Neil plowed forward in exposing certain inflammatory statements Shapiro had made over the years.  

After about 15 minutes of intense dialogue, Shapiro abruptly halted the interview claiming, “I am not inclined to continue an interview with a person as badly motivated as you as an interviewer, so I think we’re done here!” He got up and walked away. Later, Shapiro came to recognize and admit the mistakes he made in the interview and made a public apology to Neil claiming he had “mistaken his antagonism for leftism.” Shapiro admitted that he had not done his homework and ended up with egg on his face by finding himself in the position normally reserved for his interlocutors.

Neil was, at the very least, provocative throughout the interview. However, one might suspect intellectual dishonesty if we were not so accustomed to the degraded status quo of the public discourse. Mattha Busby at The Guardian sheds some light on Neil’s intentions in interviewing in such a manner. The BBC interviewer explains, “I tend to take the opposite position from those I interview. It’s a useful way to test their positions. It tells you nothing of my own views. What do American interviewers do?” The American interviewer may do that too, but it is hardly an ethical journalistic standard for authentic news reporters.

Civil discourse is the golden mean between the extreme speech codes of political correctness and the opposite extreme of coarse personal and ideological attacks. Civil debate subordinates the emotions to the right use of reason, and reason is subordinated to ethics guided by the Natural Law. The coarsening of civil debate begins when the Natural Law is denied and subjectivism inverts the order of ethics, reason, and the emotions, making how one feels more important than objective truth and moral rectitude.

This great country was built on a robust but civil public discourse. The majority of the Founding Fathers were educated in the classical method and were able deduce talking points from principles of truth gleaned by the great authors expounding on the Great Western Tradition. Modern schools are a far cry from what they once were and have now trained our populace in such self-referential ideologies that authentic dialogue is all but impossible.

If speaking truth without charity is coarse, then speaking untruths is worse still because it is intellectually and morally dishonest. If political correctness is considered “charitable” (read: niceness) without truth, it is worthless in public discourse. Shapiro’s method of speaking blunt truths without the requisite charity may indeed coarsen public discourse. However, the blame for the drastic descent of the public discourse to its current depths lies at the feet of our public schools and the media outlets that flow from them.

As a public school teacher, I am keenly aware of how the nationalized educational agenda leads to relativism, subjectivism and ideological indoctrination. Indeed, to disagree with the monolithic ideological stances of the public school is a kind of career suicide. The current state of the mainstream media is merely a rotten fruit of our deformed educational system. As the training in the public schools go, so go the media outlets they have formed.

Shapiro’s thesis that “reason and moral purpose made this country great” is most certainly true. One aspect of reasonable moral purpose is robust civil discourse. Unfortunately, however, the golden mean of civil discourse is no longer within our grasp. It seems that either the truth is spoken without charity, or “charity” is propagated by ideological fiat in the name of class warfare and identity politics. Either way, the Neil-Shapiro interview can help us to see both extremes of the difficulties we face in recovering the golden mean of civil public discourse.

Photo credit: Screenshot via YouTube


Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a writer in residence and teacher of philosophy and theology at Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta. He is also a senior contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and has written for numerous venues on matters of faith, culture and education.

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