Today’s headline in USA Today reads as follows: “What Happened to Civility?” At the risk of sounding rude: hahaha, oh that’s a good one, ROFLOL.
Our current rash of incivility is nothing new but it does seem at times to be particularly threatening. Look at what the last decade has wrought: a rash of angry, impassioned (or calculating) commentators, all with access to airwaves or broadband and many espousing a so-called “conservative” point of view. Their idea of free expression consists of name-calling and their expression of ideas boils down to inane invective that makes Triumph the Insult Dog look like Gandhi. Since appeals to reason apparently aren’t appealing in the least, we are treated instead to Anne Coulter’s “towel-heads,” Bill O’Reilly’s “traitors,” Glenn Beck’s “racists” and Rush Limbaugh’s – I don’t even know where to begin.
The other “side” – um, non-conservative – has been feeling the heat. Not wanting to be seen as weak, they’ve responded by hauling out a big brush in order to paint all Republicans as “wing nuts” and “crazies” or even “big fat liars.” As a certified ECL (east coast liberal, although I was born in the Midwest and “liberal” means open to discussion), it’s hard not to resort to naughty words to describe the crap that sometimes comes out of Sean Hannity’s mouth – or Michelle Bachman’s, for that matter. I refrain because name-calling, while easy, says nothing and solves nothing .
This week seems to be focused on the outbursts of three well-known people – well, two who are well-known and one who is gleefully capitalizing on his new-found fame, it would appear. I’m not sure whether Serena William’s outburst was more understandable than, say, Joe Wilson’s or whether Kanye West’s behavior was more calculated than the other two. In fact, I wish the media would stop expending so much energy trying to analyze these particular episodes or label them as harbingers of a decline in civility.
I would suggest that the common thread that ties these outbursts to together is a sense of entitlement. We’re all “free” to say or do whatever we want. After all, we’re just expressing our true feelings or we’re giving voice to the honest emotions of others. I don’t know that trying to intimidate a young singer or a court side judge, or interrupting a speech and then turning it into a PR opportunity qualifies as particularly “honest.” But it’s much worse to deliver information selectively in order to manipulate public opinion.
Incivility has always existed in public, particularly political life. Our democratic tradition has proved to be messy at times. Britain’s House of Commons has hosted some particularly nasty fights. In this country, earlier presidential campaigns were brawls (or duels: Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton to death after Hamilton’s interference prevented Burr from becoming vice-president; talk about a sore loser). The newspapers in our nation’s early years were overtly partisan vehicles for disseminating not just a candidate’s platform but gossip, rumor and innuendo concerning his opponent. In the fifties, Joe McCarthy held sway in my home state of Wisconsin and nothing says rude like being called a Communist – and denied your livelihood.
Maybe it’s not worse. Yet I could swear vitriol is raining down on us these days. We’re almost at the point where we can’t even pretend we’re exchanging ideas within the context of an open democracy because we’re not. We’re ranting, folks. The proliferation of outlets for self-expression means there are more places than ever to roll in the mud or sling it every which way. If we aren’t down and dirty, we’re analyzing every single outburst to death; actually we’re giving bad behavior life after death.
I believe vigorous debating is healthy; it hones our critical thinking skills, opens us up to other people’s ideas and may produce highly satisfying outcomes, like the Torah, the U.S. Constitution or agreement on who to vote off the island or into the semi-finals. But these outbursts and the lengthier diatribes don’t represent debate but the triumph of raw feeling. We must be heard so we will be outrageous; outrageous has more entertainment value. The disease has gone viral; we’re all ready for a fight.
Have we always had each other on the ropes or by the throats? Are we doomed to live in states of red and blue and see everything in black or white? Is there anyone refereeing or are we all too busy renouncing one another? I’m all for differences of opinion, but do we have to be so friggin’ rude about it?
We act as if discussion is for sissies and reasoning is for wimps. Everything gets reduced to the level of a barroom slugfest. We must know such behavior is not humanity at its best and has the potential to be dangerous but we persist.
Bigot! Traitor! Pansy! Hate-monger! Racist! Socialist! Loser liberal! Fundamentalist fanatic! You idiot! Says who? Says me! Shut up! No, you shut up!
What we need is a giant time out. Everyone shut up. If you can’t stop acting like self-involved idiots, you will be sent to your rooms and you will stay there until you can behave civilly.
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