The collapse of civil discourse in this post-truth age

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Our cover story was assigned more than a year ago. I was wondering about the dramatic decline in trust toward government leaders, the media, religion, big business and other organizations once thought to be foundational to a strong society. I understand why we’ve come to distrust these institutions. I also know that qualities such as honesty, trust and credibility are essential to any relationship; healthy relationships of any kind simply cannot survive lies and deceit. And these days, from politicians to pundits, from online posts to PR spin, it’s hard to count on what’s being said, reported or cited as fact.

When I first spoke to the writer about credibility — what it is and how it’s earned — we had no idea that credibility and trustworthiness would become a predominant force in the 2016 presidential campaigns. Who could have imagined that candidates for the highest office in the land would not only have trafficked so cavalierly in deceit, lies and misinformation but would also show so little regard for human dignity, personal integrity and class? What should have been a national conversation on crucial issues at a critical juncture in America’s pilgrimage disintegrated into an adolescent playground fracas in which hand size, bravado and below-the-belt personal insults eclipsed meaningful dialogue — with schoolyard posturing inflaming the fears, resentments and hatreds that divide us.

The entire ordeal was a national disgrace. And the media (the definition here to include not just mainstream news agencies but social media and those far-flung purveyors of anger, vitriol and purposeful disinformation) only incited the troops — herds riled to take on an established in-crowd coveting power and to take down the institutions they had lost faith in. Credibility on every front, at almost every turn, was abandoned, truth rendered irrelevant.

Six months ago, when yet another round of racial skirmishes erupted across the country, I asked two African-American graduates to help us understand the gulf between white and black. Despite the clamor, I still believe honest and reasonable dialogue leads to understanding, and understanding is essential to meaningful human transactions. Back then we had no idea that racism and vilifying the Other would be so central to the 2016 election process. And in some ways the election, regrettably, has validated and empowered that toxic mindset.

I came to work at Notre Dame almost 40 years ago because I was discouraged by the ways of the world, but I felt great comfort and resolve knowing I was part of a large group of like-minded people — people animated by Christ-like thinking, compassion, goodness, justice and the requisite moral and spiritual qualities to do what’s right in a conflicted, broken, fallen world.

Of course, we are not sinless either. I — we all — wear our imperfections and bear our own prejudices, intolerances and angers. But I also like to think — as corny and naïve as it sounds — that if there is a place where caring, love and a sustaining generosity of spirit may persist, it is within the Notre Dame family. And I would pray that, however reinforcing or maddening is this national veer into righteousness and acrimony, we now try even harder to be nice and kind, welcoming and open, merciful and forgiving, charitable and trustworthy, honorable, fair and decent — to everyone.

These are qualities most of us were taught in childhood. It’s time that we, as a nation, retrieve them and start treating each other better as the grownups we should be.