The most distressing result of viewing the events taking place in cities all over the nation these past few weeks is the realization that a very sizeable and vocal portion of the citizenry believes we cannot have meaningful social and political reform without tearing down everything our predecessors have built.
I am not surprised by this. It has been coming for a long time, a result of the intentional effort of ideologues and the unintentional consequence of economic and technological developments.
But still, I am distressed by the extent of the cynicism and the fact that the sentiment is so strongly shared by millennials.
The intentional efforts to destabilize society began in the 1970s with a few intellectuals challenging traditional ideas about truth in everything from science to politics. This “deconstructionism” gradually gained traction within universities, resulting in widespread cynicism about traditional ideas and practices in most left-leaning intellectual circles.
The political right was slower to adopt cynicism but has been even more vigorous in its embrace. This is seen in the rhetoric of influencers like Steve Bannon arguing for (and designing) the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” in the rapid spread of conspiracy theories and in the growth of white nationalist groups.
The millennial generation — comprising what seems to be the majority of the protesters on our nation’s city streets — are the products of a tug of war between two deeply cynical camps. One pulling them toward visions of a socialist utopia without personal sacrifice, the other toward a vision of individualist dystopia without compromise, and both sides agreeing on only one thing: the traditional institutions of American society — media, government, education, church, business — are corrupt and need to be taken down.
The conviction that we can dismantle the very structures upon which our society is built and replace them in short order with something better is pure fantasy. As a nation, we do not even have the beginnings of a public discussion about the kind of work that might take.
If we are to leave anything resembling a just and prosperous society to future generations, we must change our attitudes about the fundamental ways in which we conduct our common lives as citizens. To my mind, we must take the following steps:
First, stand up for civic institutions. The truth is that we need civic institutions. They are the means by which human beings come together in joint efforts to make order out of chaos. Dismantle the institutions and all you have is chaos with no way out. Get to know your judges, your legislators, your police officers, your representatives on the city council and the local school board. Let them know you appreciate the work they do on your behalf. Insist on improvement, but don’t criticize without taking time to know who works for you, what they do, and how they might do it better.
Second, stop complaining about the “media.” Certainly, there are times when journalists get stories wrong; there are times when they demonstrate personal bias or overlook key facts. But the media — especially the mainstream media — is our only source of shared information. If we do not have sources of shared information, we will have no way of coming to agreement on vital shared concerns.
Third, do not generalize from the exception. Stop sharing the story about the one guy who said something really dumb and happened to be a liberal or a conservative. Foolish people are pretty much equally distributed across all segments of society. When you take one or two examples and conclude that all liberals or all conservatives are idiots, all you demonstrate is that . . . well, you fill it in.
Fourth, join a community organization and participate regularly — a service club, a church, a sports league. The purpose of such groups is to build informal networks of friendship which strengthen social capital and bonds of trust. By joining voluntary associations of fellow citizens, one learns how to engage in sincere political disagreement without hatred because members have something in common other than their differences.
Fifth, insist that your elected officials tell the truth regardless of the consequences. And be truthful yourself. Do not spread falsehoods on social media. If you are not sure whether something is true, keep it to yourself.
Sixth, commit yourself to respectful public discourse. That is how we work things out in a democracy. It is the purpose for which free speech is protected in the Bill of Rights. Do not silence people you disagree with. Do not “unfriend” them. Do not yell at them. Show them sincerely and patiently why they are wrong. Maybe, if you are fortunate, they will change your mind.
Finally, commit yourself to peacemaking. Neither participate in nor tolerate violence against fellow citizens for any reason.
Immanuel Kant wrote of a dove in flight imagining how much faster it could fly if the wind was not pushing against its wings.
Those who imagine a nation in which we will be free of greed, racism, oppression, prejudice and all forms of injustice once the “system” is dismantled are mistaken. Some kind of system by which citizens agree to shape a common life is the only means human beings have ever had to move toward shared equality and prosperity.
The powerful can survive anarchy; the vulnerable cannot.
Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.
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