When Republican Rick Santorum calls President Obama a “snob,” has some line of civility been crossed? When Democrat Maxine Waters calls Republican leaders in Congress “demons,” has that same line been crossed from the other political side? And what does that mean to political discourse generally?
What about the anonymous commenter on Ohio.com who called another commenter a “dumb a$$”? Or the one who called a Beacon Journal columnist “a bully and self serving bozo”? (This is not the last time you will see “bozo” in this story.) Or the commenter who blasted “a bribed, stupid, gluttonous, obese, and corrupt moron.”
While some comments are deleted from Ohio.com for being inappropriate, none of those had been as of Thursday.
When political provocateur Andrew Breitbart died last week and received many respectful eulogies, more than one noted that Breitbart had called Ted Kennedy a “duplicitous bastard” and other epithets when the Massachusetts senator died. Breitbart in turn was called “a traitor” by one critic commenting on his death.
It seems, at times, that civility has absented the public conversation, especially about social issues, particularly in politics. A sitting president can be called a liar in the middle of his State of the Union Address. A commentator can call Republican ideas the province of “fools and clowns.”
With all the problems and worries facing people every day, polite interaction may no longer seem to yield solutions. After all, we are a nation that has seen all kinds of content get more graphic and blunt, including in movies and on television. Twenty years ago, a TV show shocked some critics by having a little girl tell another character, “You suck.” These days, that would raise no eyebrows in network executive suites.
But when opinions are plainly and unbendingly expressed, there appears to be no point in trying to bridge divides. A successful attempt seems a novelty.
When the Humane Society of the United States was at odds with egg producers, the producers’ rep asked, “Why would you want to have a conversation with someone who wants to eliminate your business?” And when both sides actually began talking and figured out a legislative compromise, an NPR report called their understanding “unconventional” — and wondered “whether Congress will find that appealing or suspect.”
Common ground is unconventional? Compromise could be suspect?
It makes one wonder what was said by the NPR.org commenters who weighed in on the egg story and found their comments deleted because they “did not meet the NPR.org Community Discussion Rules.”
Bozos and pink underwear
All the flying invective could be bad news.
“Both participants and observers of national politics believe that disrespectful and discourteous behavior is inhibiting the solution of pressing national problems,” says the report of the .
“When people engage in [uncivil behavior], the other side responds in kind,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication who is a nationally known expert on politics and author of Dirty Politics. “As a result you’ve lost the ability to engage in argument.”
Only, when did we lose it — if we in fact lost it at all?
• A politician, trying to explain the Communist (or red) leanings of an opponent, proclaimed her “pink right down to her underwear.”
• Another politician looked at his opposition and said his dog knew more about foreign affairs than those “bozos.”
• A distinguished academic once claimed that a presidential contender’s election would lead to the Bible being burned.
The underwear comment dates to 1950, the “bozos” remark to 1992. And the Bible threat was laid on Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago.
Americans are rowdy
For all that is said about the decline of civility, Americans are of rowdy stock, and politics has not been patty-cake. In a telephone interview, Jamieson said that the recent vitriol in Congress pales next to some previous eras.
A 2011 report on by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania looked at one barometer: How often the words of House of Representatives members were removed from the Congressional Record for violating its elaborate rules for civility. (As the report notes, the rules warn against calling another member a liar “even if he or she is not telling the truth.”) By that measure, the two years that stand out between 1935 and 2010 are 1995, when the so-called Republican revolution swept into the House, and 1946, when, Jamieson said, fears about Communism led to “very, very strident” rhetoric.
Radio personality Rush Limbaugh has often been held up as the embodiment of rough talk, and he was in the news again lately when he applied the words “slut” and “prostitute” to a college student who had called for employers to include contraception in their health care. But Limbaugh would look tame compared to Father Coughlin, Jamieson said, referring to the 1930s radio preacher sometimes called “the father of hate radio.”
There may still be rhetorical lines that commentators cross at their peril. Jamieson noted that neither Glenn Beck on the right nor Keith Olbermann on the left now has a major TV bullhorn, Beck having left Fox News while Olbermann departed MSNBC (although he is now on the smaller Current TV).
“You don’t give up people making large amounts of money unless there’s some kind of pushback that will hurt your brand,” she said.
Jamieson, a co-founder of the politician-scrutinizing FactCheck.org website, in January launched FlackCheck.org, a site that looks in various ways at the rhetorical excesses and deceptions in public debate. (The Santorum and Waters comments beginning this story, for example, are both showcased on the site.)
“We’re posting everything we can find,” she said, and the site takes pains to match excessive language from one side with comparable remarks from the other. “If [incivility] really was the dominant thing in discourse, wouldn’t we have hundreds of items a day? Maybe we’re getting two a week, three a week. And we’re really looking for it.”
Media make it worse
But what is happening, Jamieson suspects, is that the media landscape has made it seem that incivility is pervasive by showcasing even the smallest examples nonstop on 24-hour news channels and the Internet.
“When something occurs once, you will hear about it many, many more times than you ever would when we only had three major news networks and they only aired a half-hour of nightly news,” she said. “My suspicion is that we had [incivility] out there all along, but it wasn’t newsworthy enough to get into the network nightly news. Now it not only gets in, but its availability is increased dramatically because it’s played again and again, so you overestimate how much there is.”
And how you judge the relative civility of different parties can depend on where you get your information.
“We’re going to release a study in about two weeks … that shows that if you listen and watch MSNBC a lot, and you don’t watch Fox, you will think, based on what you see, that it’s conservatives who are uncivil all the time,” Jamieson said. “And if you watch Fox a lot, and don’t watch MSNBC, it’s the liberals you will think are uncivil all the time. And if you watch CNN all the time, you’ll think both sides are uncivil — and there’s more incivility, because you see it on both sides.”
Then if the assumption becomes that everyone is uncivil, that could indeed lead to more incivility because that’s how everyone believes a debate should go.
So is it possible to find reasoned solutions amid the noise and insults?
The Ohio Civility Project’s recommendations include “setting the standards for the appropriate tone of public discourse, and providing information about how well the major players live up to these standards.”
Jamieson also argues that the supporters of a given cause or candidate have to police themselves. Some of that appeared to be happening with Limbaugh’s comments, when the chorus of critics included House Speaker John Boehner, a Limbaugh ally, who said through a spokesman that Limbaugh’s choice of words was “inappropriate.”
“That’s what makes the system work,” she said. “The system doesn’t work because the other side is policing you; you’re not paying any attention to them.” That also means that, if one side admits error, the other side [and its associated media] have to note it. Too often, she said, “all the other side covers is the outrageous thing, and not the apology.”
So she looks at something like her websites “to try to get the decibel level dropped enough that people can see the legitimate differences between the candidates, between the parties. If that doesn’t happen, then people just vote their ideologies — and the independents, who aren’t guided by a strong ideology, are just confused. And the danger is that they’re turned off and they don’t vote at all. And that’s not good.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels. ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.