The CIS’s annual Consilium conference was held late last week and saw the usual gathering of the best and brightest minds from business, government, academia, education and science. A common refrain from those who attend the conference (and CIS events in general) is appreciation for the civil discourse that takes place — no matter the differing views, religious beliefs or political affiliations of those in the debate.
This is something at the heart of CIS mission; a platform to discuss ideas for the freedom and betterment of society in an atmosphere of civility and collegiality.
However, this attitude of respect seems increasingly rare in an age of social media snark, political point-scoring, snappy one-liners preferred over substance, and a capricious US president with a pathological fondness for derision.
Guardian Australia’s political editor and Insiders regular Katharine Murphy spoke at Consilium on the state of Australian politics, and said in her recent (and excellent) Meanjin essay, “…the tone of national affairs is reflexively hostile, trolling and takedowns set the tone of the day, and protagonists are being rewarded for their efficiency at treachery rather than the substance of their contributions.”
We see this antagonism playing out all around us; in politics and the mediasphere, certainly, but also — and increasingly — in daily life. Enmity seems to have become a default setting when reacting to the opinions of those we disagree with.
In Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It, a theory of political economy from 2011, polymath Eric Robert Morse writes: “When it becomes more profitable to make fun of someone or berate them for their beliefs than it is to offer a constructive alternative, intellectual discourse is threatened. And, when a people can no longer rely on intellectual discourse, the society is bound to fall.”
Civility is part of the bedrock of democracy, without which true freedom of thought and expression and diversity of opinion is impossible. Lack of civility is corrosive in all spheres — to family and community life, organisational and business success, politics — and to democracy itself. We must find a way back towards courtesy — and, by extension, kindness — if civil society is to be civil by all definitions of the word.