Public discourse is in a sad state these days. People are not even talking about issues or political problems. Long gone are the times of lofty discussion about ordered liberty and inebriating individualism. Today things are getting ugly.
The unpleasantness was brought to light by the Sohrab Ahmari-David French brawl over how to present the conservative message. The discussion questions the liberal framework by which opposing parties and opinions might engage in polite and civil debate. Americans have always assumed that a value-neutral public square and marketplace would allow the maximum amount of freedom to the individual under the protection of the rule of law, logic and civility.
However, the neutrality of the public space in the present culture is no longer assured. Everything from football games to restaurant choices is politicized and weaponized. Antifa thugs don’t discuss but terrorize those who peacefully demonstrate. The rusting machinery of impartial public discourse barely functions as a polarized and decadent America collapses into disunity. The big question is if the public square can be value-neutral in today’s America.
The Public Square Can Never Be Valueless
The answer to the question is no. A value-neutral public square will always be a place where tyranny will reign, and the good will be harassed. This is true not only for today but for all times.
Indeed, the problem should be framed differently. If the value-neutral public square ever existed in America, it was because it had values and was not neutral. Like it or not, any realm of human action must involve some governing moral values, even if unacknowledged. A better way of expressing what has gone wrong is to say that those unacknowledged values that once ruled the public square have now gone missing.
The public square was once a forum sustained by social capital, civic structures, family, religious faith and the virtues developed by Western Christian civilization. Russell Kirk speaks of “an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define but really more powerful: the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary association” which “form the fabric of social reality” and sustain constitutional order.
From this hidden foundation came the civility and politeness that allowed public discourse to flourish in America. More importantly, it facilitated the unity around American values that secured national harmony and consensus. It also allowed for an enormous variety of ways to express that consensus inside society.
What Destroyed the Public Square
The fiction of a value-neutral public square is what has helped destroy public discourse. The liberal idea that values need not be universally shared and recognized is false. Only with shared values can society flourish. Without them, the tension between the unbridled passions of autonomous individuals and the needs of the common good will explode. It becomes impossible to find a way for the two sides to co-exist.
For want of principles, the public square has now shattered into a thousand pieces depriving the nation of its once-prized unity. Conservatives have sought to conserve the remnants of social order by playing by the rules of the old American consensus. Liberals keep breaking the constraints of these same rules as a way to achieve and “evolve” to a society of maximum diversity, disordered liberty and frenetic intemperance.
One unfortunate by-product of the clash is brutal incivility. Debate in this fragmented society has come to mean conformity to politically correct, imposed norms. Thus, those who question the state of this rickety framework are asking if it is time to change the rules of the debate to reflect the cruel reality of the escalating Culture War.
Some who are labeled illiberals are asking if the days of civility are over. Civilization be damned. Let there be no rules.
The Framework Is Not the Center of the Debate
As precarious as this framework might be, it should not be at the center of the debate. The framework is a means, not an end. The liberal platform establishes the rules of the debate. It is not the debate.
The core of the debate is still the issues that must be discussed. The solution does not lie in abandoning the public square but rather the fiction of the value-neutral public square. The only way forward consists of reaffirming the unacknowledged natural law norms, institutions and Christian values that have always served to unify the country. This fight should also expose the decadent norms and immorality favoring the unbridled passions and the avowedly anti-Christian values that divide the nation.
In this way, the struggle for the nation’s future will at least be framed to reflect the reality of what is happening on the public square. Rather than the fictional value-neutral, the public square should be value-infused.
Forceful Civil Debate
Thus, a framework of civility should still be a major goal in this fight, even if it be unilateral. The calm and logical presentation of perennial traditional ideas is still the best manner of influencing the debate. It will always beat the rabid stridency of emotional rants that capture headlines but lack substance.
At the same time, one does not have to be uncivil to overcome an adversary. People have the mistaken notion that polite debate is always meek and concessionary.
Truly civil debate is calm yet passionate; polite yet forceful; pondered yet daring. It should reflect the fortitude of those convinced of the integrity of their cause. The force of logic gives rise to principled discourse that is proper to political discussion.
Engaging in such bold civil debate in the public square banishes the relativism that allows the left to impose its agenda of politically correct absolutes that reduces everyone to timid silence. It makes possible the objective affirmation of right and wrong, truth and error in the public square. American political discourse needs to return to its long history of boldly acknowledging God’s help, beseeching His aid—and even praying in the public square. The left’s gag order must be challenged.
In this way, conservatives can and should continue to engage the left in a value-friendly public forum with their accustomed courtesy even when not reciprocated. Engaging in debate does not exclude winning. For those who passionately believe in truth, winning means being unyielding to anything that harms the common good—as can be seen in the cases of abortion, socialism, communism and so many other social evils. It encourages an enormous variety of solutions around unifying principles.
Thus, the public square can return to being a forum that works with, not against the common good. Through a principled course of action, ordered liberty will prevail over the present chaos in public discourse.