Boomer Voices: Where is civil discourse?

Our landscape for information has certainly changed since we were kids. It’s crowded, loud, and vibrant, which all at once can be incredibly awesome and simultaneously frightening. Wendy Reichental writes as a Boomer Voice from Montreal that during the pandemic, her laptop has been a source of company, access to entertainment and connections, and an educational tool. She appreciates all of that, but doesn’t appreciate some of what she has seen.

I remember watching The McLaughlin Group on PBS with my dad. The show premiered in 1982 when I was in my second year at university and still living at home. It brought together contrasting panelists to passionately discuss the news of the day. It was hosted cogently by the moderator John McLaughlin, known for his forceful and boisterous timbre.

John McLaughlin

Our one TV could be heard blasting these lively roundtable rumbles throughout every room. I had no choice but to see what the commotion was all about. Strangely enough, I was drawn in, perhaps because I felt compelled to root for the one female pioneer of her time, Eleanor Clift, trying to lift her voice above those of her male counterpoint commentators.

I’m nostalgic for those days because it was a time my parents were still alive and I felt safe in the comfort of their loving home. My only worries were to complete my courses and get my degree but beyond that, I was blissfully unaware of how combative and vitriolic the world would become.

No spoiler alert that these days in which we live now, civil debates, respectful dialogue, and decorum are as dispersed as dinosaur fossils. You know they’re out there but they remain challenging to uncover, and beg the question, what happened, and how did we end up here?

In these angrier times, trolls invade every form of social media, now including Zoom bombings. Nothing is left untarnished, not even a mild-mannered MeetUp group like the one I recently attended. MeetUp is an online platform for interest groups and learning new skills. It’s a social network that attracts people from all over the world. When an upcoming invitation on “How to Make Friends in Later Life” landed in my inbox, my curiosity was piqued, so I registered. I was pleased to read that two social media gurus with diverse and extensive backgrounds would be the hosts, but less impressed by the fact that these two women appeared to be in their twenties and would be speaking about the difficulty of making friendship connections later in life, which I interpreted to mean people in my age range of 50-plus. But no matter, I took note of the zoom link and maintained an open mind.

The cartoonish image of Wendy Reichental.

In addition to keeping an open mind, I should have kept my eyes closed so I would not be able to read the unpleasant conversations taking place in the chat scrolls. At first glance, it started innocently enough with people introducing themselves and stating where they were. But it soon escalated to an old Western-style bar room brawl but with fighting words. As I was trying to focus on the talk and the topic, some attendees were voicing less-than-flattering opinions about these young female hosts, while others were more direct and conveyed how they felt using only symbolic profanities. These attacks on discourse continued this way for quite some time, despite a few attendees trying to squash them by pleading for the ugliness to stop. I, unfortunately, got so distracted and discouraged that I exited the event.

I’ve read that The McLaughlin Group was attempting a comeback of sorts although with so many political pundit formats already in place, I wonder if it can still stand out like it did in the ‘80s. They hope to distinguish themselves by “being a place where friends disagree agreeably.” A sentiment I could stand behind and wish we could witness more of along all opposing lines and modes of communication, on social media and beyond.

11 Comments

  1. I too would hope the McLaughlin Group could be resurrected! The phrase that comes to mind is “That ship has sailed”, but one can hope!

  2. I also remember watching the McLaughlin Group and This Week with David Brinkley. Sadly, we are living at a time where civil discourse has been put on the back burner and people who do not agree with our view of the world or point of view are not just wrong, but some how evil. I do hope we find our way through this ugly labyrinth. Thank you Wendy.

  3. Thank you for remembering that long gone PBS show, John was also known for saying “bye bye” abruptly at end of each episode. Just hoping we could evolve to a gentler tempered time.

  4. I hope McLaughlin Group or at least a program with the same debate standards will be resurrected and take hold too!
    Wendy, you speak for the majority of us. When opinions get ugly, they become like honking traffic on a freeway. It turns into noise we no longer hear. Media plays a large role in leading the way back to civility.

  5. The McLaughlin Group on PBS is nothing like it was years ago. The host now can only be described as a self-absorbed “hey, look, does anyone have an opinion better than mine” type of fellow. It is unwatchable.
    For example, the cocky current host Tom Rogan says in a PBS promo, “Just answer me yes or no…” So much for civil discourse, thoughtful discussion. The creep just wants yes or no.

  6. Civil discourse is certainly rare in our society. Two examples from the past week.

    First, after contacting friends we hadn’t seen in over a year to ask if they’d like to get together for dinner outside, the husband replied with a long message essentially saying that he would find it “too risky to meet” because we might disagree politically. This despite the fact that we’ve enjoyed each other’s company many times over lunch, dinner, and a book discussion group and I don’t recall ever having heated disagreements about anything. And what is so frightening about an honest discussion?

    Second, I just left our weekly Zoom of the current events discussion that my husband hosts. It’s a small group, ten to twelve participants. Staunch Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats. Each week my husband prepares material (sometimes sent in advance) around a topic that’s in the news. We usually wander off into related, or divergent areas, but manage to share our points of view, disagree, and question the source of each other’s opinions without rankor. After 90 minutes, we bid adieu until next Tuesday morning. Post-Covid, we’re looking forward to meeting for another lunch, dinner or outing with the members. While I find it frustrating to hear media talking points espoused and am sometimes appalled by a lack of empathy for those with less advantage, I value the willingness of our friends to speak their minds and to listen to mine. How fortunate we are to have a place to do that.

  7. That’s how it should be Nancy. Acceptance of different opinions but still be able to appreciate a humble meal together, with respect and kindness. What better ingredients for a more tolerant world!

  8. Loved your wise words! Unfortunately I think that people today don’t have the patience to listen to opposing viewpoints. With the media that we see now, if you don’t agree with the host’s views, then you are “cancelled”.

  9. That might be true for forums where there are hosts debating a heated political topic. This was a Meetup group discussing an innocuous subject and people being rude in a chat scroll just for the sake of being rude and crude. Either way, the situation remains sad.

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