Toxic Talk Hijacks Political Discourse | WGLT

Toxic Talk Hijacks Political Discourse

Dec 14, 2017

Extreme rhetoric has turned political discussions in America ugly. But Illinois State University professor Joseph Zompetti believes there's hope for future discourse.

Zompetti teaches rhetoric and political communication at ISU. His book, "Divisive Discourse: The Extreme Rhetoric of Contemporary American Politics," examines how liberals and conservatives go about expressing what they think—and it usually includes polarizing talk that results in an "us versus them" mentality that divides, rather than bring people together.

Joseph Zompetti specializes in political communication.
Credit Joseph Zompetti

"There's been quite a bit of acrimony and vitriol," said Zompetti. "The last few presidential campaign cycles, we've seen a lot of negative campaign ads. The 2016 cycle was to the extreme. We really saw people pull out all the stops on both sides of the political spectrum, really getting nasty, not sticking to the issues, making a lot of personal character attacks. And we've just seen an escalation of that kind of acrimony."

The rise of divisive dialogue can be attributed to a variety of factors.

"The media have a part in this," said Zompetti, referencing not just mainstream media, but social media as well. "The 24-hour news cycle contributes to this, the social platforms which encourage people to say whatever is on their minds. It's easy to share hyperlinks without checking the veracity of the sources."

Gerrymandering has also contributed to the trend of toxic discourse.

"It's both Democrats and Republicans. Whomever is in office can reset boundaries for their districts. When you couple that with the type of media that we have today, people are in their information silos or echo chambers. We self-select our exposure to information based upon what we are already thinking. We want to be validated. Nobody wants to be told that they're wrong. So if we do seek out information, we tend to seek out information that agrees with us."

Adding to the problem is the fact that Zompetti believes that people are never taught how to have a conversation.

"We enter into conversation based on what we see our parents do, what our friends do, what we see on television, and we mimic that kind of behavior. So if the dominant voices in political conversations are yelling at each other, then the average person is going to tend to mimic that behavior," he said.

"We often enter our conversations as if it's a competition. When in reality, we really ought to enter conversations by saying, 'What can I learn from this conversation? What can I learn from the other person?' Even if you disagree with them, chances are you can learn something."

"We need to try to remember that the other person is a human being, just like us. In a democracy, where disagreement is always going to happen, the only way to move forward is to listen and to try and find some sort of common ground."

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