If you want elevated dialogue, you need an elevated mind. Most Americans, across the political spectrum, seem to mourn the loss of civil dialogue. Indeed, civil dialogue has been kicked to the curb in the age of Trump. But Trump is only a symptom, even if a modern icon, of discord. The true villain here is the mundane minutia that fills our minds through round-the-clock information on social media. It has lowered our civic IQ, then lowering the substance of civil dialogue.
Social media creates the delusion that all opinions are of similar value. Social media is the great equalizer. Unfortunately, its egalitarianism is mongrelized not idealized. It often displays the beauty of humanity alongside the “wild ranting of the unhinged masses” – the opposite of any truly transcendent environment. Look at a museum or an art gallery or, what used to be, the college classroom. Very discriminating. Very enlightened. Very serious. Then look at social media. Picture yourself standing in the Louvre and now picture yourself in any number of social media conversations.
I have a theory about today’s incivility: The less serious we are, the more incivility we will see. The more we focus on worldly, mundane, materialistic and selfish matters, the less intelligent, tolerant and civil we become.
Serious people understand this disconnect, regardless of politics or worldview. Atheist and feminist, author Camille Paglia gets it. She explains, “All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts…no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization.”
What is that heritage of which she speaks? It is the quest to understand the meaning of life. Let me take this one step further. Civility is not the domain of intelligent people alone but it is the domain of all serious people. Serious people seek the meaning of life. Where did I come from? Why am I here? And, where am I going? Seeking answers to the great questions of life comprise western civilization.
There is a reason why many Utahns are more worried about civility today than partisan politics. Utah is a heavily religious state, more so than any other state. Its predominant Latter-day Saint population typically cares as much about its discourse as it does its politics. Now, admittedly, I am not suggesting that all Mormons participate in civil discourse. They don’t. But when an otherwise faithful Latter-day Saint dons the tin foil hat, that person has problems running deeper than issues with civility. On the whole, Utah makes a wonderful case study in civil discourse.
To be clear, the key to civility is not faith; the key is transcendence. Only a people focused on humanity and the meaning of life is able to achieve such a lofty goal. Paglia, though an atheist, is transcendent in many ways because she embraces the quest for life’s meaning. So do Latter-day Saints. Their entire religion is premised on this quest. A young boy asked God which church was true. In other words, Joseph Smith wanted to know the true meaning of life, its purpose and his role in it.
Given numerous historical examples of religious contention and discord, the search for meaning is not enough. We must find it. Transcendent ideas lead to transcendent behavior. Utah, as much of the country, is increasingly divided along the lines of civility, not politics. We argue today mostly about process, not substance. We trust leaders who speak intelligently, with self-control, and a sense of transcendence. We distrust ignorant, inhumane, and reckless voices. The difference between the two, I maintain, is the degree of seriousness each person views the meaning of life.