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Decrying incivility in government is about as uncommon as a politician wearing a flag pin. Everyone says there should be a return to civility, and many a politician has called for it at one point or another during his or her campaign. The truth is that common courtesy and a basic respect for those with whom one disagrees are too often viewed as quaint relics. These sentiments are often seen as losing strategies and can even be seen as traitorous since they might not do enough to galvanize one’s particular base. I maintain that calling the hate and bigotry on the right end of the political spectrum as bad as the vitriol spewed from the left a false equivalency, but there is plenty of blame to go around.
I’m not saying that everyone who subscribes to a certain political party or who promotes specific stances has an utter disregard for those with whom he or she disagrees. As is the case with most things, unfortunately, it’s those who scream the loudest, say the nastiest things, and occupy the greatest attention (due to the constant media spotlight), who become our icons and our political rock stars. Anyone who’s ever been in an elementary school class with those few kids whose bad behavior resulted in punishment for the whole class knows the drill. Perhaps it’s sociology: as voyeurs and voracious consumers of entertainment as well as the need to feel a sense of belonging or group identity in an increasingly alienated world, we seek out these atrocious displays of animosity. As people tear each other down, we cheer from the stands. Again, not everyone delights in this spectacle, and not all the time. Rome had its circuses, its great gladiatorial spectacles, but it also had its philosophers—and its statesmen.
It is these very statesmen (statespeople, really)—who take their positions seriously, and make the effort to solve problems and improve the human condition—who are often the ones ignored. Worse, they are punished for their willingness to compromise, to assess from all angles, to stray from the flock. Critical thinking is secondary to claiming and maintaining power, and this maintenance of power (as well as the attempts to attain it) is too often achieved by obliterating and dehumanizing the opposition. Those in Congress who buck the trend—the Dick Lugars, the Mike Castles—are swiftly replaced as their courtesy and reaches “across the aisle” mark them as liabilities. That a serious and accomplished presidential candidate such as Jon Huntsman was written off as soon as he announced his primary campaign is another testament to this climate. When urged to slam his opponents with acerbic insults, Huntsman calmly shook his head and chose substance over superficiality. The media soon got bored of his nuanced assessment of trade policy with China and his assertions that climate change is indeed real—and, gasp!, a result of human pollution and industry.
The primary system is also devised in such a way that skill or qualifications do not necessarily determine which candidate advances; rather, the one who can trip the rest of the competitors enough to come out ahead then faces his or her opponents, who have also, probably, clawed and bitten their way to the general election by emerging the most ideologically pure, the most willing to denigrate their primary opponents, and, are often the most monied people in their races. Since the two major parties are so dominant in the American system—from local politics all the way up to the national stage—polarization is unsurprisingly prevalent. The Tea Party has undoubtedly made Congressional polarization worse.
This all serves as a backdrop to the kind of thing that hits closer to home. As much as I would like everyone I encounter to be as politically engaged as I am, I realize that most people are not. Most people don’t know about the “Oh, snap!” moments that occur daily in the hallowed halls of Congress, conveniently couched between the decorous language of “My distinguished colleague from such and such state…”, and how these insults diminish debate and waste incredible amounts of time. Most people did not watch every Republican primary debate. Most people did not even know who Paul Ryan was before last Saturday. This level of ignorance is disheartening, but it’s not the subject of this blog post. The point is that most people will interact with others who employ the same lack of civility. They will also read what their idols write in magazines. They may very well incorporate these ideas into their everyday lives and begin to hate the “other”—the enemy—among them. This, unlike conservative monetary policy, has a measurable trickle down effect.
These are the people I want to focus on. The examples I provide are self-described progressives, proving that, unlike their limited conceptions that conservatives are the only purveyors of bigoted rhetoric, they, too, spread ignorance, disinformation and misinformation, and even incite violence toward those they malign.
Let’s start with Exhibit A. I’d like to begin with a woman on Twitter. This woman was trying to make a point about “rape culture” and the fact that consent can be revoked by a woman even in the middle of sex. Basically, even if the woman has said yes to the man, she can tell him to stop at any time (even while his penis is in her vagina), and if he doesn’t stop, the ensuing action is considered rape. No argument from me here. It was her subsequent tweets, however, which began to eclipse her initial point. Her description of rape, which went a bit further, was tweeted within the context of her assessment of the Julian Assange extradition case. I will not get into what may or may not have happened, and the fact that there are other political ramifications, whether Assange did or did not rape two women in Sweden. Whether you’re an ardent Assange supporter or not—or you fall somewhere in the middle—you would likely be totally turned off to this woman’s points about rape and domination of women after reading her Twitter feed.
I fancy myself a feminist, and I cringe when I see women malign the entire male gender and when they resort to ad hominem attacks and outright lies and generalizations about anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Another note: dressing provocatively does not make you a traitor to women or a slut, and cringing when a girl starts talking about “eating pussy” in mixed company does not make you homophobic. I can almost guarantee that if a male said the same thing, the female wouldn’t think twice about calling him disgusting and a chauvinist. Both of the previous examples have occurred in my life, and I stand by the fact that I do not hold back women everywhere by wearing what I want, and not wanting to hear about anyone eating anyone out, thank you very much.
Back to Twitter woman, though. This woman’s succinct and important point was drowned out by an hours-long screed against pretty much anyone who dared debate her. At a point, she decided she didn’t want to answer anyone anymore because she was bored and didn’t want to put the time in, and reasoned that she didn’t owe anyone anything. She wrote things about groups of people she’d never even met, and passed them off as truth. She had a point to make, and damn anyone who got in her way. Not only is this uncivil and immature; it drowns out the point you’re trying to make and upsets anyone who might’ve been stirred by your first point. The lesson: think for more than two seconds, and don’t be an asshole. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and one asshole turn does not deserve another—not if you actually want to accomplish anything in the way of progress.
One more side note: Inevitably, people claim freedom of speech. I don’t deny the validity of this claim. People are free to say and write nearly anything they want. My point is that a lot of these things are ultimately really bad for society. They contribute to the dumbing down of society and the squinty-eyed suspicion of anyone who is remotely different than you. Much is made of the wrongness of school-age bullying, but bullying occurs in all levels of society, and is actually encouraged in many arenas.
The next example I include is Tom Morello, the singer for Rage Against the Machine. He penned an op-ed piece in Rolling Stone in response to the revelation that newly-minted Vice Presidential candidate and fiscal and social conservative extraordinaire Paul Ryan has claimed Rage Against the Machine is his favorite band. The fact that Paul Ryan listens to Rage Against the Machine is not news to everyone, but Tom Morello is apparently just now hearing about it, and he’s not happy.
Ok, the fact that Paul Ryan listens to Rage Against the Machine is pretty paradoxical, and actually really funny. It’s the kind of tidbit that gives me hope for the world, the kind of quirk that puts a smile on my face and makes me think that despite our differences, maybe we really can find common ground and appreciate each other’s artistic, stylistic, or intellectual merits, even if we don’t agree with the ideology or the message behind them. For instance, some of my favorite bands are considered Christian rock bands, and just because sometimes they explicitly sing about Jesus doesn’t mean I don’t like them. They also haven’t succeeded in turning me Christian or religious or conservative. I know of other people who listen to Bad Religion, another one of my favorite bands, who, conversely, are not at all in line with their strong atheist and progressive political themes, but who still enjoy listening.
Anyway, Tom Morello writes about the fact that, obviously, Paul Ryan doesn’t get his band’s message. He claims that “Paul Ryan is the embodiment of the type of person our music rages against”. As if this isn’t enough, Morello goes on to say that Ryan must have a lot of pent up rage.
He writes: “Don’t mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta “rage” in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.”
Witty? Not so much. Morello’s trying to make a point, obviously. It’s lost here, though. Morello had an opportunity to spread a real message at a time when a lot of people were tuned in. His article went viral and was read by millions on Twitter within hours of his publishing it. If anything, he should probably thank Ryan for the free PR. The rest of the article’s tone is just as scathing and perhaps even pettier. When Morello calls Ryan an “extreme fringe right wing nut job”, he’s not doing himself any favors. The side he’d like to convince is turned off completely. Maybe he’s preaching to the choir, but he owes his audience more than that. He just sounds stupid and petulant.
Yes, Ryan does promote the view that abortions are not ok even if a woman is raped. His legislation does advance policies that directly hit the poor and the hungry and disproportionately affect minorities. Yes, he is in favor of deregulation and wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2009, in which he declares that carbon monoxide is not a pollutant or a greenhouse gas. He would dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. The list goes on. There is no shortage of extreme stances to choose from, and Morello would do more to call Ryan out on the specifics with which he disagrees. Instead, Morello comes across as an embarrassing caricature of “the angry, irrational leftist”, eschewing any class or tact. I agree with most of Morello’s basic views, and I end up not liking him based on what he wrote. He loses credibility in my book because I think, ew, how downright mean and nasty and unbecoming.
Incivility abounds. And, as I said, it trickles down. I knew people in college who were all for protesting what they saw as injustice, exploitation of labor, and institutionalized inequality. So far, so good. Their self-professed desire for anarchy was not very realistic, but freedom of assembly and political freedom are protected in the United States. Peaceful protest has helped bring about great change in American history. Several of the aforementioned people, however, advocated the use of Molotov cocktails in their protests, and even if they never had the opportunity to throw one themselves, gleefully cheered on those who did. I know people who hate other groups so much that they see a necessity in terrorism. It’s the whole “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” adage.
Yes, people are oppressed, but those “fighting for freedom” are killing people. Not only is this “by any means necessary” ethic morally wrong, but it undercuts efforts for real change. I guess people are desperate or they don’t think things through enough. You hate the US Chamber of Commerce, you hate Israel (I’m not even going to get into the fact that hating every citizen of a country is beyond reasoning), you hate those who disagree with you politically, and those who hold you back. Fine. You don’t riot and throw homemade bombs at people and shoot them and celebrate suicide bombers.
You don’t dehumanize your opposition to the point that these things seem ok. You don’t listen to those who do to the point that you become desensitized, that you justify horrific actions to yourself as understandable or necessary. These things are not ok.
I don’t like fear mongering, either. I’m not attempting to fear monger here, but yes, I am drawing a connection between incivility and alienation, between harsh words and harsh actions. Not only is progress almost certainly doomed, but everyone suffers—and sometimes the result of prolonged and festering incivility is irreparable damage.