American society is fighting a new civil war in grocery stores, on social media and in the news. Attempts to engage in civil discourse these days often result in personal attacks containing scathing remarks aimed at obliterating the opponent.
A simple statement related to healthcare, race, gender identification, or the environment leads to not just a shouting match, but an all-out verbal assault that leaves the victor his spoils and the loser in pieces across the battlefield.
True, arguments are part of life and are expressions of our human-ness. An argument usually consists of reasonable statements that attempt to persuade others toward a certain premise or conclusion. Arguments can be productive means of getting to the truth of a matter and educating others on various topics. But the level of pure virulence in argumentation these days has risen to the point of hatred and malice, even resulting in a rise of physical violence and death threats.
The emotional satisfaction gained by berating an opponent can be explained through neuroscience. As the argument heats up, the adrenal system reacts, sending our brains and bodies into a battle. We gear up for war.
During the confrontation, blood pressure rises, the heart races, endorphins (the “flight-or-fight” hormones) are released, and to the winner a sense of euphoria emerges that may be compared to a runner winning a race, a gambler winning the jackpot, or a drug addict getting high.
The brain releases dopamine, which is our reward hormone. Feelings of satisfaction and contentment abound. To the loser comes the agony of defeat, and often the need to rise and conquer once more.
Society promotes this concept of what Lakoff and Johnson’s book “Metaphors We Live By” calls Arguments as War. There is the normal structure of argument-attack, defense, counterattack and so on, that accurately resembles war. This leads to a clear winner and loser: someone is right, and someone is wrong. This idea of argument as war is nothing new, but it has become more dangerous in today’s society.
Historically, this concept has served its purpose, and society generally accepts the notion as reality. Lately, though, the normal restrictions no longer exist.
The line of civil discourse has been blurred. Social media has allowed us to abandon the rules of civility and tact.
Groups are formed in which people of like-minds can promote various concepts, and fuel the arguments with no push-back or counterpoint.
The strength in numbers creates a battalion of individuals, armed with unrealistic validation of being absolutely right and completely righteous.
Faceless anonymous contact results in vicious attacks in which typical lines of respect and decency are crossed.
The consequences of these attacks are hidden from the view of the attacker, reduced accountability. This has created an entire society of bullies, both left and right, and has developed into an even greater issue.
The recent attack at the congressional baseball practice that left several people wounded, including conservative senator Steve Scalise, is an example of how the vitriol being spread throughout society is becoming more and more violent.
James Hodgkinson fueled his hatred for the political system through social media. He gained confidence from what he perceived a large group of supporters.
He then took to war in the physical sense, planning and executing his attack, which resulted in a battle with no winner, only losers. The act fanned the flames of hate and malevolence.
Words become courser. Tempers flare. The ability to sit down and engage in a conversation with someone who has opposing views is often impossible.
The vilification of the other is commonplace. Conflicts create higher and higher levels of stress and feelings of eminent danger within all of us.
The sense of danger involuntarily results in constant release of fight-or-flight hormones, leading us to thrust more powerfully and violently into battle mode. The need to conquer has overtaken our desire to be connected with each other.
The emotional satisfaction of winning through the vilification of our opponent comes at a terrible price. Noam Chomsky writes that “we are racing rapidly to the destruction of a civil society.”
We can no longer agree to disagree. Hate and fear are the kindling for the fire that is raging across the entire United States. Nasty comments made by the president validate contempt. Gaining wealth, forgetting all but self, and the idea that “I alone can fix it” are leading us into a reprehensible environment in which no one wants to live.
This is not the kind of society we want to create for ourselves or future generations. How we behave and who we are as a nation are inextricably woven together.
America is full of people with the capacity for introspection and achieving wisdom through interacting with each other. Loving our neighbor and the Golden Rule are guidelines that we have lived by for many generations.
The only way forward is not to step onto the battlefield and engage in hostile arguments of this civil war, but to stand together side by side for truth, justice, and civil discourse.