Archive for Thursday, August 21, 2008

Uncivil discourse

There’s little debate: YouTube video shows coaches were out of line

August 21, 2008

The Lawrence Journal-World recently said in an editorial:

If you're already concerned about the level of civil discourse in American today, you shouldn't watch a video now circulating on YouTube of two debate coaches "discussing" an issue earlier this year in Wichita.

The heated and profanity-laden argument was between two debate coaches, one from the University of Pittsburgh and the other from Fort Hays State University. (Note to Kansas legislators: Kansas University isn't the only state institution that occasionally has a faculty-related controversy.)

The Fort Hays coach drew special attention because during the course of the argument, he chose to emphasize one of his points by dropping his shorts and exposing his underwear-clad behind to the Pittsburgh coach. It is a jaw-dropping moment but hardly the most offensive part of this video.

When we think of a debate, whether it's a high school or college contest or a presidential debate, we think of intelligent people who make reasoned arguments based on factual evidence. We think Kennedy or Lincoln. The debaters often speak with passion, but they get no points for losing their tempers and certainly not for using profanity.

To think that the two coaches in this video are giving instruction and perhaps setting an example for young people about how to make their case or express their point of view is stunning. It's hard to even discern what this argument is about. It apparently has something to do with racial issues (the Fort Hays coach is a white male, the Pittsburgh coach a black female) and the Pittsburgh coach being rejected as a judge by the Fort Hays State team. However, it's impossible to make any sense of their screaming tirade.

The Fort Hays coach's job may be in danger. He's a nontenured faculty member, and the university's provost clearly wasn't amused by the coach, who "often forgets he's part of the Fort Hays State brand."

Obviously this display reflects poorly on both of the individuals and institutions involved. What is even more disappointing, even depressing, however, is the possibility that these two debate coaches reflect the level of discourse that too often permeates the American dialogue, whether it's on the campaign trail, in city hall or between two disgruntled citizens. Freedom to speak one's mind is part of America's bedrock, but there's a limit.

On second thought, if you care about the level of civil discourse in America, maybe you should watch the video. It might serve as a much-needed wake-up call.

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