How can we raise the level of civil discourse when we can’t even be civil? Or civilized?
I was going to fill in the blanks of my long absence here by explaining that I had spent so much time watching, listening to and reading about last year’s presidential campaign that I ended up not writing about it. There was so much commentary and drama ad infinitum that I didn’t think another voice was needed in the conversation. However, after all the campaigns were over and I had fully digested the political spectacles on both sides, there was one word left that pretty much summed up those long months for me and what I thought of the level of public discourse: disgusting.
On the Republican side there was the egregious name calling, lying and fear mongering of the lowest levels, and on the Democratic side there was also mudslinging and a well oiled pr campaign that was almost too slick, too seamless, and too flawless. No one’s that perfect. Creating that kind of celebrity status for a presidential candidate left me feeling very uncomfortable, and I’m not sure that I can explain why. We already have too much emphasis on the cult of personality over substance, and I so wanted substance.
It was no wonder that then candidate Obama’s personal and political eloquence was such a breath of fresh air, rescuing us at moments from the hype und drang. Granted, one can argue that that’s what makes presidential politics so much fun, and I must admit, it’s the only sport that I follow with glee. But there was something in all of the primaries and the subsequent presidential campaigns that just left a bad taste in my mouth. It got downright uglier than usual, in my estimation. Having watched for years from the inside of the news when I worked at TIME, where I lived through two presidential campaigns, I perhaps have a different perspective than most casual viewers. Those of us on staff who were curious enough (that would be me) would question writers just off the campaign buses and planes to dish out the gossip on both sides of the political circus. Always yummy fodder. But it wouldn’t get reported or spoken about much outside of those hallowed and, for the most part, discreet halls. I personally wouldn’t dream of repeating hearsay to anyone outside of the office. How unseemly.
But something has changed in our 24/7- live-out loud-in-public-on-the-Internet-with-no-boundaries-or-shame society. It seems to this observer that we now live in a time when apparently nothing is sacred. Now things that might have been told to me in whispers seem to be shouted out loud to the media by the guilty parties themselves. I just don’t know what to make of this. Honestly, I’m in culture shock at my own culture.
In the past few months we have been witness to:
-Governor Mark Sandford’s confession: Yes, I played hooky from my job, disappeared and lied to everyone I know, including my family, to be with a mistress whom I love more than my wife, but you should still want me to work for you because I am the chosen one…
-ditto Senator John Ensign: Yes, I’m an adulterer with a mistress whose family happens to work for me and to whom my parents gave thousands of dollars, but I’m still a good person and I confessed so it’s all better now…
–right wing radio and TV talk show hosts happlily spewing their daily doses of vicious hatemongering, with no censure…
–right wingers carrying signs of the president of the United States as Hitler in a Nazi uniform and pugnaciously shouting down their elected officials in public forums.
But this week left me flummoxed. I couldn’t believe my ears or eyes. Say wha? —
–Congressman Joe Wilson: I can heckle the President of the United States during a serious address to the nation, while the world watches, and I will only apologize when forced to and now you should give me money….
–Kanye West–I am a complete and utter boor in public in front of millions of people (which includes my fans) and I think this is OK because…
–Serena Williams–It’s normal to lose my temper and show off my potty mouth because millions of sports fans are not watching me on TV in one of the most important tennis matches of the year…
and even, heaven forbid, President Obama–Of course I can use foul language in public to a news anchor since my mic isn’t on and, after all, they never talk…
People, please, don’t apologize in public or share your private moments.
Here’s what I want: Be ashamed. Be very ashamed.
Sometimes shame is a good thing. It’s a responsible feeling. Shame says, “I know that I have done something very, very wrong, and I feel bad about that. I should amend my ways.”
What happens when uncivil and uncivilized behavior goes unchecked? What kind of society do we want to have? The word “civil” is derived from the Latin word “civilis”, which means “citizen”. I’m for that. Let’s put civility back in the citizen.
Civility seems not only to have left the building but also the continent. Can we raise the level of public discourse in this frothing fray? I voted for intelligence and rationality. At least in public, we can show a little class. Media training, anyone….?