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Political Rhetoric, Civil Discourse & the Morality of Means & Ends

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Published on: May 28, 2020

Rhetoric, as described by Locke, Campbell and other classical thinkers is something used to help men find the truth and develop virtue. It is the way men use language to not only better themselves, but to better understand the world around them and the natural truths it contains. Locke, for example, argued that men should take care to acknowledge God’s truth first, opposed to other forms of knowledge put forth by men because natural religion, or God’s Word, is not easily misunderstood. Campbell, basing much of his work off Locke, argued there were two types of reasoning, moral and scientific. Moral reasoning took precedence because it was based on human experience and testimony, tying the ideas of moral virtue directly to the absolute truth of God. Furthermore, Campbell also believed that the way we use our language and convey our thoughts has as much weight, or more, as the logic behind them. In other words, you could be making a factual argument but the way you are presenting it is preventing people from listening. This is called the eloquence of persuasion and relates to the issue of civility in our current, national conversation.

America is certainly at a point where two worldviews, diametrically opposed to one another, are fighting for dominance. On one side is the belief that man was endowed by our creator with certain, unalienable rights that cannot be deprived of us. Proponents of this view believe people can self-govern, and that government itself, being a necessary evil, has a limited role in human affairs. On the other is the belief that government should have a more prominent role in people’s lives while also, gaining power through central control of the economy. People making this argument tend to believe government should have the responsibility of ensuring resources are distributed equally. In simpler terms, it is an ideological battle over the liberal nanny state and free-market capitalism. These conflicting worldviews cannot realistically coexist in a world where truth exists as an absolute. The former view is based on the Christian worldview positing the idea that God created men with free will; thus, representing an absolute reality. The latter, that government should essentially be the central power in people’s lives. The question then arises as to whether a real sense of civility can be brought back to the national debate with two views which contrast so strongly.

What is civility? Who defines its terms? Unfortunately, this is something that the opposing sides of the left and right cannot even agree upon. If the terms of civil debate are not mutually agreeable, how could any consensus over such controversial issues that we face today possibly be reached? For example, Dr. John Livingston writes that civility requires first, that one respects themselves to respect and engage in civil conversations with others. This coincides with both John Locke’s and Hugh Blair’s assertion that rhetoric should aim to produce men of virtue that seek the betterment of their own understandings. Dr. Livingston is arguing that there are certain virtues a man must possess to engage in civil dialogue. These are faith, hope charity, courage, providence, justice, and temperance. These virtues are largely associated with the Christian religion and reflect the inner morals of faithful men.

In the book Crisis in Civility? Political Discourse and Its DiscontentsAnthony Simon Laden, in chapter one, suggests that civility in politics revolves around winning arguments or turning people from their previously held positions to leaning more towards yours. He hints at the uncivil nature of such strategies by pointing out the fact that politicians often turn to smear campaigns designed to discredit and humiliate their opponents. Civil discourse, he suggests, revolves around coming to agreements. He also refers to a concept known as civility of politeness which suggests, in the course of day to day life, people in a society such as ours owe it to each other to live and let live and at the very least, conduct ourselves in a polite manner towards one another. Furthermore, Laden also points out that the consequences of political discourse that take on an uncivil tone tend to create tension in society while appealing to what he refers to as man’s violent tendencies. This is ironic because the book itself seems to be defining the terms of civility by suggesting on page 24, that being civil sometimes requires the “sacrifice of political advantage in the name of fairness.” The author of chapter one also shows his political bias by suggesting that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George Bush were the ones calling for national civility amongst what he referred to as the nation’s most uncivil time, the 2016 presidential election. As if Republicans were the ones calling everyone racist.

Today’s political discourse revolves around whether man can be free and govern himself, as our founding documents set forth, or, the idea that we need government to manage our affairs. Considering the concepts put forth by Laden, is it possible that the two opposing sides can come to any agreements? Would we even want them too? Our nation is founded on the ideals of self-governance, individual responsibility and unalienable rights which are naturally inherent to being human. Of the two opposing parties fighting for political dominance one side allegedly believes in these principles while the other clearly does not. The hard-political left clearly displays their uncivil nature by viciously attacking anything that stands in their way. They actively seek to rip the fundamental principles of our founding apart while replacing them with Marxist philosophies that go against the very Word of God and nature’s self-evident truth. How can you be civil with people who seek to destroy everything you believe in?

Of the two opposing factions fighting for our loyalty and votes, one side all too often displays a willingness to compromise and seek terms of agreements while the other shows them no respect for doing so. This comes down to the nature of the philosophies driving the parties. The Republicans, which are supposed to represent the Christian right, are more likely to compromise because it is often seen as the civil thing to do.

The political discourse taking place today is driven by the perceptions each side has of the country in which we live. The definition of equality and freedom is vastly different as Republicans tend to believe in personal responsibility and equality of opportunity while the left argues America was founded on racism and only certain people are afforded opportunity; therefore, the government must intervene. They believe their visions for America represent a superior morality, and they are more concerned with winning an argument to achieve their vision than they are coming to any compromise. They have demonstrated an “ends justify the means” morality when it comes to winning arguments and pursuing their objectives.

It is no secret that Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals is the major playbook for the Democrat party. In the first chapter simply entitled “The Purpose,” Alinsky makes it perfectly clear the aim is to create mass organizations that can take from the haves and give to the so-called have nots. In other words, take from the rich and give to the poor. Is that civil? Is that moral? Civility and morality take on new definitions when viewing things from Alinsky’s perspective. To the Republicans, wealth is earned, and all Americans share equal opportunity to pursue that which makes them happy. Some people will become rich and others will not. To the Democrats, this represents a system of inequality and unfairness. Their visions for America entail a government powerful enough to dictate equal outcomes for all. This represents a higher morality for them because it is out of a sense of general concern, so they argue, that they pursue such power. The standard definitions of civility and politeness cannot be applied with such stakes presenting themselves at the table.

Alinsky argued that morality was subjective in the sense that people should be willing to surrender their own personal salvation or display a willingness to corrupt themselves for the greater good. He writes on page 25 ̶

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”; in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind. The choice must always be for the latter. Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s personal salvation. He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of “personal salvation”; he doesn’t care enough for people to be “corrupted” for them. (Alinsky, Rules for Radicals)

If a concept like absolute morality can be twisted like this for the purpose of pursuing political objectives, what meaning does the word civility have any more? Alinsky views Christians as “means and end moralists” who are not willing to put their principles and beliefs on the line to pursue their goals. Democrats, being the party mostly recognized for not believing in God, continuously display uncivil behavior designed to discredit and humiliate their opponents and, persuade people to their positions through vicious lies and smear campaigns that not only attack individuals but political processes and traditions as well. For example, House Speaker Pelosi is not only attempting to institute a mail-in voting scheme, which would enable fraud on a massive scale, she also has established voting by proxy policies for house members. This enables certain congressional representatives to cast votes for others in their absence. This is an example of an “ends justify the means” strategy. They believe their end represents a more just and moral America, and anything they can do to push towards that end, is justifiable no matter how corrupt.

The same can be said when it comes to defining the terms of civility. The Republicans, having largely a conservative Christian base, are not as willing to sell out our principles and morality in pursuit of political goals. Many conservatives certainly wish they would grow more of a spine and defend those principles, however. Crisis in Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents suggests that some people view mere disagreements as being uncivil, so there is cause for worry when presenting our party in a moral and civil manner is the main concern. The hard left, having a moral base in “means and ends morality,” has no such concerns, and see the employment of strategies that seek to insult, discredit and destroy reputations as civil dialogue in pursuit of their Utopian ideals because the end is a better, fairer world where everyone is guaranteed equality from a compassionate, caring government.

When two political parties are operating from a completely different base in morality and principle, driven by ideological beliefs that totally contradict one another, is it possible to have civil political discourse? Would one side even want reasonable compromise with the other? America is supposed to be a place where the ideals of freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility are the bonds that bring us together. Underneath those unifying principles is the belief in universal truth, that men are meant to be free to pursue their own ambitions. We were all born with the same empty slate of opportunity and we can follow it to whatever ends our own wills and drive will allow. Under such principles, there is room for civil dialogue and disagreements. Debates can take place between two parties who have at their hearts the sustainment of such a system. When they oppose each other as vehemently as they do, and one side desires radical change while the other seeks to maintain what they believe to be the last best hope for freedom, civil dialogue is unlikely to occur. That is where we are now.

Article posted with permission from David Risselada

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