Just What IS Civil Society?
The BBC defines civil society as a public space between the state, the market, and the ordinary household in which people can debate and tackle action. If a healthy civil society relies on two-way communication, America is failing. “We see early signs of decay,” says Marc Rowan, co-founder of the Rowan Family Foundation. He says civil society in the United States is one-of-a-kind but there’s a breakdown in discourse. To keep from crossing from civil to uncivil, we need to learn to listen and disagree. Rowan and other leaders in news and nonprofits delve into how we can ensure the US lives up to the standards of the proverbial Good Society.
- 2019 Festival
If civil society is breaking down, how can we rebuild it? Bret Stephens, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, says identifying the core components that make up a robust, democratic society is key. For one, “disagreement is necessary and productive,” he says.
Big IdeaAt the end of the day, you have to find a balance between having a society in which those disagreements are not only permitted, but flourish and produce. And, there has to be a community through which those disagreements work themselves out.Bret Stephens
Stephens thinks of civil society — not as a set of institutions — but rather, a matter of manners, morals, and civilization. In other words, it’s not the result of something we’ve designed and created but starts from within.
One contributing factor to a decaying civil society starts in a newsroom. News organizations are relying too heavily on what they perceive the public wants rather than the expertise of their own people, says Bret Stephens. “We’ve become, as an institution, too obsessed with what we imagine are the demands of our consumers — the reader, rather that what we, as experienced editors and writers, think an educated citizen ought to know.” One way to fix this, he says, is a simple change on the New York Times website.
Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, says newsrooms need to move past the temptation of clickbait and sharing information they think consumers want. Rather, newsrooms need to focus on reporting “information that will really help [readers] make decisions about the important issues we’re all wrestling with. If we can’t move past [the clickbait], we’re going to be in very, very serious trouble,” she says.
The mediums of television, theater, visual art, and literature help us better understand one another, says Paula Kerger. The arts can aid in keeping us from judging someone with whom we disagree. “In storytelling, and particularly the kind of storytelling that we’re engaged in around documentary and other [projects], we have the opportunity to bring forward the fact that we are all individuals and we share much more in common than we share separately.” Productive conversations, she says, only happen when we withhold fast judgement, and the arts can help with that.
The political left and right in America today have adopted an apocalyptic mindset. Bret Stephens says apocalyptic thinkers believe only total solutions exist and the art of compromise is unnecessary. Not all outcomes of apocalyptic thinking are bad, says Stephens. He points to the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859 by abolitionist John Brown who had an apocalyptic mindset. Contrastly, Abraham Lincoln had the opposite state of mind: prophetic.
Modern-day apocalyptic thinking doesn’t choose political sides. Conservatives, says Stephens, “looked at the 2016 election as a moment when either we were going to save ourselves by whatever means necessary or le déluge.” On the left, he says, the “cancel culture” on college campuses where speakers aren’t allowed to present, is apocalyptic thinking. “We have to do a lot to rekindle that prophetic side.”