There is much on the internet, in the newspapers and over the airwaves today discussing the uncivil rhetorical climate that preceeded the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' life. Here are some of my thoughts about the types of speech that destroy civil society.
Speaking takes place within a community. Communities are comprised of persons who relate to one another on the basis of mutual trust. The level of trust within a community depends upon the degree to which persons talk to one another honestly, openly and respectfully. Slander, gossip, lies, half-truths and all forms of deceitful speech reduce the level of trust and increase the level of suspicion within a community.
Lies destroy both the community and the individual. Liars wound their victims by depriving them of mutual respect and injure themselves by destroying self-respect. They harm the community by undermining the foundation of mutual trust and personal respect on which civil society is built. Both the individual and the community are degraded.
Propaganda is more than lies frequently repeated. Propaganda consists of facts falsely interpreted and actions falsely attributed to unworthy intentions and motives. Propagandists always speak in tones of moral indignation. They reduce trust by identifying a group as a threat to community. They raise the level of suspicion by relentless verbal attacks designed to isolate the group and exclude it from community.
The more prolonged and passionate the rhetoric of the propaganda, the greater the likelihood of violence against the isolated group. Impressionable individuals will be incited to collective action against the perceived "enemy." Perniciously, the reproach of association with the isolated group discourages discerning members of the community from protesting about injustices against the group.
Indoctrination is talk that closes the mind. Indoctrinators speak with unquestioned certainty and unshakable conviction. They believe they possess the truth. They transmit a formula for faith, a uniform way of viewing the world, and a standard form of speech and expression to their pupils. Questioning the formula is not permitted, perceiving different points of view is not tolerated, and deviating from the standard form of speech and expression is not welcome.
This form of speech reduces trust to the small group of the indoctrinated. Suspicion of others can be so intense that adherents often feel threatened by any friendly and open conversation with those who do not accept their doctrine.
Monologue is a single speaker talking with no one listening. It is talking without listening. Monologue is the culmination and conclusion of speech that is uncivil. It is the talk of those so suspicious of others that they trust no one but themselves.
There is no community in monologue. It is the talk of those who have closed themselves off from others and are tormented by their isolation and loneliness. There is danger that those so tormented will forego speaking altogether and express themselves by acts of violence and rage against civil society.