Despite all the appeals for greater civil discourse in the political realm, such speech seems more the exception than the rule, and perhaps it has ever been so. One can even admire the bile and the incivility implicit in Hilaire Belloc’s witty epitaph:
Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept; for I had longed to see him hanged.
Unfortunately, demagoguery rather than wit has more often typified the incivility of politics. From the birth of our country to the tensions leading up to the Civil War to the Roosevelt years and beyond, language that paints one’s opponents as fools, tools or traitors has rarely been hard to find. Understandably, such rhetoric becomes more heated when the stakes are high and the nation is divided, as is our current state.
Perhaps it is too soon to declare that the intemperate language and violent imagery abroad in the land these last few years has crested, but the Tucson shootings provided an occasion for a variety of people, for a variety of reasons, to call for the rhetoric and the anger to be dialed back.
President Obama, who like his opponents has thrown some rhetorical red meat to his base on more than one occasion, gave a stirring speech in Tucson calling for us to live up to our ideals and proceed with more civility in the future. His words seemed heartfelt and were well received even by his critics. For now.
The truth is that the incivility we complain about is not just a problem for politics. Rash and unjustified language and attacks that are mean and personal abound, particularly on the Internet, which allows the cowardly to be anonymous. Major media websites have to repeatedly remind readers to avoid the obscene or threatening in their posts, and journalists who regularly read reaction to their stories are often shocked at the content.
We now know about the growing problem of bullying in schools, but ask any teacher or principal — even at the college level — about the kind of incivility they experience from parents. News flash: The kids learned it somewhere.
And not just from their parents. Popular media, particularly television, have set the bar low in the behavioral models they provide. From raunchy movies to the kind of family sitcoms that feature rude back talk and belittling sarcasm, the standards of civility are virtually nonexistent. Speaking as a parent, I am amazed at how real-life children talk to their parents, and sometimes how parents talk to their children.
This lack of civility can be found in the Church as well. I have always wanted to publish a week’s selection of emails and letters received by the average pastor or bishop. It would be eye-opening to see what crosses their desk from their co-religionists. Base motives are ascribed to everything from forgetting to mention a sports team at the end of Mass to the text of a Sunday homily.
I don’t have any magic solutions, though I know it will take more than politicians sitting next to each other at the State of the Union. Maybe we start with the recognition that the campaign for civility begins with each of us. And we won’t even succeed there until we stop making the assumption that anyone who disagrees with us is mean-spirited, treasonous or stupid.
Perhaps the best we can do is conclude that even as we argue to our heart’s content and disagree until the final Te Deum, we will try to presume the best, and not the worst, about our opponents.
It may kill us to do so, but nobody said civility was easy.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.