My notes closely resemble theirs; things can tend to the uncivil, this has been going on for a long time in politics, and it's really up to the individual to decide to remain civil. There is some interesting discussion of the value of being nice/civil vs. being direct and honest despite the risk to decorum. My two cents in that discussion is that I think it's possible to be honest and civil at the same time. But even then, you cannot control what others may take offense.
However, there is one point that has been bouncing around my head since the briefing. It's an idea that first came to mind when I read CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters two years ago. A particular chapter so resonated with me that I wanted to save the idea; so I blogged about it. More accurately, I typed a paragraph from the book which I felt summed up the thesis of the chapter quite well. I reproduce it here:
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.How this short paragraph sums up what often passes for dialogue - both in mass media as well as in the blogosphere! It may not be the best way, but I don't mind so much a fervent, even angry exchange of ideas - so long as ideas are exchanged. However, what seems to happen more often than not is what CS Lewis describes as flippancy. People have been "trained to talk as if (fill in the blank) is funny." There's no actual joke being told, it's just assumed to have already been made. The more a person uses this tactic, the more immune they become to anything resembling a dialogue, the more every other opposing viewpoint appears ridiculous to them.
For instance, when then Vice President Al Gore was running for president, a joke arose that to this day continues to dog him. In an interview with CNN before he had even secured the Democratic Party's nomination VP Gore was asked,
Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?Al Gore's answer, taken as a whole, was pretty generic. A sort of, 'look at my record, I've pushed for important things before, and I'll do the same as president' type of answer that went on for a couple of paragraphs. But there was one short phrase in his answer that demonstrates the power of flippancy,
I took the initiative in creating the Internet.We all know how that phrase turned out. A politician describing his view that he had been at the forefront of legislation which allowed the internet to completely change the world we live in somehow got twisted into a decade-long (and counting) running joke. To many, the "Al Gore thinks he invented the internet" is a knee jerk response to anything the former VP says - even if that has nothing to do with current events. It's a slam inserted into any discussion of what Gore is doing or saying. Those that do so have safely armored themselves against actual dialogue.
This is one example of many. The characterization of the TEA parties and Town Hall goers as mobs is another. It is generally how political viewpoints are dismissed, and how political campaigns are waged. Making your opponent an object of ridicule is far easier, and unfortunately more successful, than debating ideas. In my opinion, this is what truly infects our political culture, and what leads to incivility. It is an easy game to get caught up in, and it is up to each individual to see past the flippancy to the real dialogue begging to be held.