In my ongoing effort to push beyond the walls of my own echo chamber, I’ve been looking at various information sources that I wouldn’t normally peruse. I hesitate to call these information sources “news sites” because they’re too often opinion masquerading as reality, based on gossip and assumptions rather than facts. Regardless, however, of whether these sources are news or opinion or gossip, what I see is alarming.
Perhaps I am naïve or Pollyannaish—I’ve been called worse. But the hateful, mean-spirited things I see on the intertubes is frightening and disheartening.
For example, I recently wrote about building walls. Over at the twitters, I searched on #BuildTheWall to see whether that hashtag might be one I wanted to attach to a tweet about that post. Here’s just a sample of what I found:
The free ride is over ILLEGALS. You can riot all you want. The Wall will be built and order will be established. #BuildtheWall
That’s not even the horrible stuff. I won’t put that up here. But I did read those tweets. And they made me feel sick. Scared. Sad.
Can’t we all just get along?
The language we use (and I don’t just mean dropping the F-bomb or the N-word or the C-word or the P-word) is so demeaning—to ourselves and to each other. Must we really treat each other with such disdain? Do we really have to be so harsh? Do we really think that being crude is the only way to be heard?
sticks and stones
may break my bones
will never hurt me
You know what?
That’s a load of poop.
Words can hurt.
If words didn’t have power, we wouldn’t use them.
In what seems to be our never-ending desire to inflict the most pain on our perceived enemies—the “others,” whom we just love to demonize—we have swapped out civility for vitriol. We have taken to choosing the most vile, hurtful words we can in order to prove a point. And it’s not just we the people who are doing this. This ugly rhetoric is coming from our elected officials. Indeed, it could well be argued that Donald Trump mastered the art of ugly rhetoric.
In a December 2015 article in the Washington Post, Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College and author of Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education and Culture, Rightly Understood, noted that “one sign of the decaying quality in the basic classiness of American political rhetoric is the innovative use of expletives in speeches. This works for Trump. His Jacksonian brand is to show he can say anything—things that are not only politically incorrect but offenses against common decency—and get away with it.”
I realize that I’m not exactly stopping the presses here with late-breaking news. But I am continually stunned, not just by what everyday people and politicians and pundits say, but by how they say it. I’m stunned by the words people choose, particularly because it seems we so often choose words deliberately designed to inflict lasting pain on those we disagree with.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan commented in March 2016—before the presidential campaigns were really diving down into the muck—on the state of political discourse. In speaking to a bipartisan group of House interns, Ryan said that, “Our political discourse—both the kind we see on TV and the kind we experience among each other—did not use to be this bad and it does not have to be this way.”
Our political discourse and the ugly rhetoric that now seems part and parcel of it didn’t use to be this bad—I agree with Ryan on that. But it has been getting bad for a long time. Representative Joe Wilson broke with tradition, protocol, decorum, and the rules of common decency when, during President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, he shouted “You lie!” Those two words elicited a gasp from the Chamber, from people watching and listening on TV, and even from President Obama himself, who stopped his speech to respond, saying “That’s not true.” Wilson, who was publicly rebuked by the house, later apologized to Obama.
The House may have rebuked Wilson, but most of us get away with saying all the horrible, hurtful things we want to and do say. Most of us ignore the nasty tweets and posts we read. We don’t call-out those people who say mean things.
Which is strange. We don’t tolerate bullying at school. We don’t tolerate harassment at work. And yet in social media, which pervades our lives, we all too often not only tolerate bullying and harassment, we engage in it.
We tell our children to be kind to others. We teach our children to be nice to everyone. And yet, as adults, we all too often fail to live up to the very lessons we try to instill in our children.
So, we can complain all we want about the divisive political discourse coming out of Washington, but until we’re ready to tame our own rhetoric, our complaints will fall on deaf ears. We must model the behavior we wish to see in others. If Donald Trump excelled at anything during the past year and a half, he excelled at parroting the ugly, hateful, divisive rhetoric coming from the electorate. People loved what he said because he was saying what they were saying. He was using their own words to speak to them. He was the embodiment of their chosen echo chambers.
Today, many people are fearful about what the next four years will bring. In much the same way—although on different matters—those who voted for Trump have been fearful about the continuation of what they saw as eight horrible years. That fear manifests itself in ugly tweets and posts. Tweets like this:
I would like to start a positive dialogue in an attempt at unity: Trump is a fucking idiot and so are his misguided supporters.
God I hate Trump supporters. Yes, all of them.
Seattle councilwoman gets threats after Trump protest: “Go back to India bitch” http://bit.ly/2g0piut
I suppose some people will laugh at these tweets. Some might cheer. Some people will think that those of us who cringe when we see stuff like this are a bunch of weeping pansies.
And maybe we are. Maybe I am. I probably am.
But if feeling sorrowful at the continual, glaring displays of intentional incivility makes me a cry-baby, then so be it.
I know we can be better than this. Politics have always been divided—that’s why we’ve always had at least two political parties—but politics need not be so divisive. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not pals by any stretch of the imagination. Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater weren’t hanging out at the bar together talking politics over a couple of beers. Maybe they were lambasting each other in private. But they weren’t taking to the newspapers or the radio or to television—or any other media—telling each other to go #*@% themselves.
And neither should we.
There is a way we can be respectful and still get our points across. There is a way we can disagree politely. There is a way we can say what we need to say without being intentionally ugly or mean. It’s as easy as choosing to be respectful, to be decent, to be considerate.
I choose to disagree politely. I choose to say what I need to say without being intentionally ugly or mean. I choose to be respectful, decent, and considerate.
Will you join me?