Keynote Address: “An Urgent Task”

Keynote Address
Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community
Philadelphia, PA
December 9, 1996

I am delighted to welcome you to this first meeting of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community. We have been working towards this moment for almost two years, and we are thrilled to have you with us here today.

So, why are we here?

Put simply, many of us believe we are approaching a critical moment in our society — a moment that will determine the shape of our social and political future for many decades to come.

This is a moment of such potentially significant social consequence that it imposes special responsibilities on leaders in every field: but particularly in politics, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in business, in the law, in non-profit agencies and foundations, and most especially, upon those of us in the academic community.

Across America — and increasingly around the world — from campuses to the halls of Congress to talk radio and network TV — social and political life seems dominated today by incivility, ideological extremism, an unwillingness to compromise, and an intolerance for opposition.  

This dominance is now widely evident in the harsh and uncompromising character of American political debate; in the resurgence of fundamentalist religious and social doctrines; and in the deepening isolation and self-segregation of ethnic and racial communities.

Overseas it is expressed in the rise of virulent forms of nationalism and xenophobia in Europe, Asia, and Africa — with tragic human consequences.  

Among some of its most dramatic symptoms are the murders of physicians for performing legal abortions, bombings in New York and Oklahoma City (to say nothing of those in the Middle East), and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Yet it is pervasive enough to be plainly visible in the products of Hollywood and the daily conversations of talk radio and day-time television.  

Indeed, incivility has become a routine subject in our popular entertainments. That fact alone tells us that most Americans share this perception. According to a recent poll, 89% think incivility is a serious problem. And 78% think the problem has gotten worse over the past decade.

Of course, none of this is surprising:  the incivility and polarization perceived by most Americans are readily evident in our public culture. What first appeared to many of us as minor skirmishes over a narrow spectrum of cultural and educational issues — the so-called “culture wars” — has now become a full-fledged, nuclear conflict, in which no prisoners are being taken. This kind of unrestrained warfare has now become the daily fabric of our politics — on both ends of the spectrum.  

Ironically, this sort of treatment is so common today, that even the politicians involved take it as a given that it is politically smart to oppose it. Hence, the sudden eruption of pledges to “work together” and “seek compromise” that we have heard since the 1996 elections. We can only speculate about how long this new “era of good feeling” will last. But note that no one seems to question the premise:  that political debate has become too coarse, too confrontational, too extreme.

Of course, the examples that we have just seen are relatively tame and self-limiting. For all his extremism and crypto-racism, Pat Buchanan was endorsing a mainstream candidate for president, George Bush. And if the polarized pundits on “Crossfire” really came to blows, cooler heads would no doubt intervene. Yet, we cannot afford to be too sanguine.

There are other, far more troubling, examples to consider. Take the music of Tupac Shakur, the rap artist murdered in Las Vegas while under contract to Death Row Records. Did his death imitate his art — or did both merely reflect the nightmarish cultural reality from which he sprang? Imagine the impact such a popular artist has on thousands of fans.

Every day, the news is filled with new examples of differences of opinion taken to absurd lengths:  drivers in traffic jams shot at because they honked their car horns; members of a fraternity at the University of Rhode Island brutally assaulted by the football team because one player was ejected from a fraternity party.

Of course, there has always been violence in our society and incivility in our politics. And even those who once felt some obligation to serve as role models, no longer feel any compunction about engaging in the most extraordinary exhibitions of incivility and rudeness. And then there is the largely invisible development of a culture of unrestrained rage, sadism, and insult on the Internet. As one journalistic observer recently reported: 

“An outsider peering into the wired life would probably take one look at the sheer bile that passes over the wires and come away with the impression that the Net community consists of 30 million virtual Visigoths pounding bloody knuckles on the keyboard and zooming around cyberspace in a testosterone-jacked homicidal rage.”

I will leave the details to your imaginations.

My point is really not to bemoan the coarsening and brutalizing of American culture. I am not convinced it was ever all that pretty, to begin with. In fact, another of our tasks will be to place all of this in historical perspective. One generation’s shameful breach of good manners can easily become the exemplar of respectful, civil protest in the next. But if something has changed, there is reason to think we must look more deeply into it than the surface manifestations of incivility and coarseness. It is my hope that through such understanding, we may find some clues to effecting serious change.

Because even if the level of incivility and polarization is not new, it does seem that its consequences are more dangerous — and more widespread. It seems as though there is some large and fundamental process at work — at home, abroad, and on campus:

The incivility and extremism infecting our politics and our culture, now polarizes the discussion of almost every public issue, and drives successful leaders and officeholders to appease the most extreme of their potential supporters — or to retreat from political life, altogether.

In concert with the spread of wonderful new forms of democratic government around the world, we also see an apparent rise in the virulence of nationalist movements and fundamentalist doctrines. And as our campuses strive to prepare students for the diverse global society of the 21st century, we see increases in self-segregation and terribly intolerant behavior.

I suspect that these are not isolated phenomena, but surface manifestations of some common, deeper dynamic. But, unfortunately, in the face of such a world, the temptation to withdraw, to shut out the madness, to isolate ourselves, is understandably growing.

Last January, the Washington Post reported that we are becoming a nation of suspicious strangers. Not only have we lost confidence in our government and our institutions, but more and more, we mistrust each other. In every generation since the 1950’s this mistrust has grown. Today, nearly two out of three Americans believe that most people cannot be trusted. Thirty years ago, a majority believed the opposite.

Along with mistrust has come a decline in the role of mediating social institutions that once bound us together in multiple communities and provided forums for education, debate, and communal interactions. This leads in turn to greater social fragmentation and individual isolation. No wonder that the evocative title of Robert Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone” has become a metaphor for our age.

U.S. News put incivility on its cover and asks “whatever happened to good manners?” The right calls for a return to “civic virtues,” and the left tells us that “it takes a village.” Of course, both have elements of truth on their side — but neither has a realistic road map for getting from here to there.

Prescriptive solutions based on a long-departed — and probably mythic — past are not efficacious. Self-righteous sermonizing about moral decline or the values of good citizenship are unlikely to change powerful patterns of behavior. Incivility and rigid political extremism are only the symptoms. We cannot moderate their influence until we have adequately diagnosed and understood the underlying disease.

Of course, here everyone has their own “ten most likely” list of suspects. Many people blame the advent of electronic mass media. They surmise that the numbing isolation of television and the anonymity of talk radio have fostered a generation of thoughtless, inattentive, violence-prone video-junkies.

This argument asserts that it should come as no surprise if our world begins to look like MTV, since our children have been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to experience the world in 2 minute sound bites and rap-rhythmed word patterns. Add to that the apparently unlimited debasement of entertainment and journalism — on television, in film, and in print — in the endless search for commercial profits and higher ratings.

Others blame the schools for failing to educate a more discerning populace. If high school graduates cannot write a serious essay or locate Europe on a map, why should we be surprised when civic virtues are ignored and the ideals of civil society confused with the right to offend, defame, and infuriate. Given the low voter turnout last month, it appears that many of us blame our political leaders.  We seem to believe they are only interested in re-election — and too often in the art of the deal.

Others believe that we are reaping the just desserts of the greed and self-aggrandizement of the 1980’s. They question how anyone can respect our society when the few, the rich, and the powerful control everything and leave the masses to suffer in our decaying cities.

We will hear about many other possible explanations over the next two days, and I am sure that each of you has an important hypothesis. Whatever the real causes of our current rash of incivility and fragmentation, it is certainly the lack of new and creative thinking that bars the way toward change for the better. As a society, we seem — for the moment — to have simply run out of new ideas.

Perhaps we are busy trying to shout one another down because we lack any real sense of who we are, what we believe, what reasons can be legitimately given to support our beliefs, and what arguments are available to convince our opponents. Along with the loudness of our public discourse has come a very real shallowness, a thoughtless  over-simplification, in which reasons, complexity, and precision seem to have no place.

Yet the situations of social and political conflict with which we are faced today are fundamentally complex. Issues like affirmative action, abortion, immigration, nationalism, and health care are difficult. Their solution cannot come from a system of communication and decision-making that rewards the simple, the absolute, or the extreme. The irony is that our human abilities to communicate and cooperate effectively have seemed to falter, just as our technological power to share information and ideas is opening extraordinary new vistas.

Even more important, our knowledge of human behavior is burgeoning. Our understanding of the complexities and contradictions of culture and tradition is vastly deeper than it was 100 or even 30 years ago. Many would argue that intellectually, scientifically, technologically, we are better prepared to confront the hard questions of the 21st century than many would have dared hope just a few, short decades ago.

Yet, we’ve failed to mobilize this knowledge in ways that create useful ideas and insightful understandings into the political and social problems we face. We’ve failed to place contemporary issues in their historical and intellectual context — not merely to affirm past perspectives — but to generate new alternatives and new approaches to them.

This is a critical role for each of our professions and for the institutions through which we practice them. Thus it falls to academic and professional leaders like us to take on this task with urgency. We must find new ways of using, communicating, and applying our burgeoning knowledge and technological capabilities. We must begin to envisage new forms of intellectual engagement and public communication that are equal to the tasks of social leadership in the 21st century.  

Not to impose simplistic solutions, but to open new possibilities. To change the dynamics of our polarized and simplistic, “in your face,” public discourse, we must create and inject into it something new: new ideas, new interpretations, new visions, and new alternatives. Otherwise, we will remain trapped in the unproductive polarization of the present.

If today’s crisis is fundamentally cultural and intellectual, this effort must first of all be cultural and intellectual in focus. It must start from the premise that our culture is too important to fight “wars” over. Rather, it is the great resource from which we must draw forth new answers to persistent and perplexing questions.

As I see it, this is an area in which each of us must assume the responsibilities of leadership. Individually and through our institutions, we must mobilize our best intellectual resources — from the scholarly disciplines, from the learned professions, and from the worlds of politics, journalism, philanthropy, entertainment, business, and the media.

Only such a broadly conceived effort will be adequate to the task at hand: First, to identify and understand the true origins of our contemporary social crisis. Second, to generate the new insights, interpretations, and ideas that will help all of us to rethink the familiar and simplistic approaches we hear rehearsed every day in the media.

Only from such a process can the new ideas and approaches we so desperately need be created. Only with new ideas and perspectives will we be able to make the best possible use of the new instruments of communication and information that are now appearing. That is our responsibility.

It is our responsibility to teach this — by example — to our students and colleagues, and to the broader society: to let them see us engage in the hard intellectual task of thinking anew about important issues. To help all of us learn to think differently — and act differently — about issues that matter to our society and in our individual lives.

This is the task we have now chosen to undertake together, through the formation of this National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.