One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.
I attempted to engage him calmly both during the open question-and-answer session and individually after the panel. Despite my best efforts, it was clear that he had little interest in respectful discourse, and he continued interrupting me loudly and angrily.
The incident with the self-described “deplorable” in Charlottesville left a lasting impression. My 2016, pre-election encounter now appears to be one of countless examples of the sort of uncivil discourse that has since become normal in our society. Since then, it’s become quite common, particularly within the political sphere, for all kinds of speech, regardless of how inflammatory it might be, to be expressed openly and sometimes loudly, without consequence. Many people couch this kind of speech in terms of a backlash against “political correctness,” and they view such speech as a right that comes without any responsibility to engage with others respectfully. It also appears that society has become complacent with the tendency of individuals to talk at, rather than to, one another. At its core, this notion of uninhibited, anti-politically correct speech has dimmed the hope of productive dialogue.