In a spring of spewed invective, those not firmly entrenched in warring camps can only shake their heads at the ever-worsening state of discourse in our culture. Each week brings new examples of obscene, racist and/or obnoxious insults from celebrities inserting themselves into politics. Those who agree rally behind them, those who don’t lash out in anger and everyone else is left aghast at their excesses.
We don’t need to recount all that’s been said, particularly in a family newspaper that avoids using terms that now seem commonplace in other media. We will note each found a different venue for their rants: Roseanne Barr via social media, Michelle Wolf at the White House correspondents dinner, Samantha Bee on a cable TV talk show and Robert DeNiro at the prime-time Tony Awards. One was pro-Trump administration, the other three very much the opposite.
But in spite of those differences, one similarity remains: They each took the notion of civil debate and tossed it into the same sewer that produced their vocabulary.
We’ve become accustomed to profanity and adult dialogue in pop culture, largely due to the ascent of cable and streaming entertainment loosed from the restrictions of broadcast outlets. This isn’t new, nor are the words used, though such language generally was restricted to R-rated productions, private conversations and the need to vent something when stubbing one’s toe in the dark.
For the most part, snide personal insults and blue remarks weren’t part of the political arena, at least in public view. Many were shocked, for instance, to hear President Richard Nixon cursing on the infamous Oval Office tapes released during the Watergate era.
But starting with the 2016 election, national politics began to mimic pro wrestling. Donald Trump emerged as the Candidate With No Filter, saying things never before heard in a political speech, even in front of Boy Scouts. In addition to coarse language, he used both his speeches and Twitter to hurl the kind of insults usually heard on playgrounds or in taverns. As others joined the fray, the art of statesmanship turned to one-upmanship, the lofty prose of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan giving way to personal broadsides.
While many blanched, Trump’s supporters celebrated his free-wheeling, plain-speaking style as being “not politically correct,” somehow equating rudeness with honesty.
As if they needed any nudge to wallow in the same mud, Hollywood celebrities took the bait and returned the salvos in kind with no restraint, ugly attacks on a commander in chief who had thrown off the gloves. In doing so, they disrespected the office as well as its occupant, and even included his family as subjects of the same shabby treatment. Social media memes joined the fray and off they went, clusters of angry extremists trying to out-insult each other in the harshest terms imaginable.
Some example this is for our youth. Alien cultures or future historians may look upon this scene and wonder when civilization lost the “civil.” Truth is, it’s been a gradual descent. The bigger question is how to get out of the hole we’ve dug.
This isn’t to advocate a return to vague euphemisms and hushed talk. No one needs to extend their pinky and pretend they’re talking to the queen at all times (though imagining your mother in the room wouldn’t be a bad start). Honesty and forthrightness are admirable traits, but can they not begin with the assumption that those on the other side of the debate stage are fellow human beings worthy of some respect?
Disagreeing agreeably has become a lost art on the national stage. As a result, potential common ground has become pockmarked with the ordinance of abuse hurled from both sides. And it’s increasingly harder to come together as one people while haunted by the memories of what already has been said and tweeted.
Fortunately, in contrast, politics and daily lives in North Georgia have not descended into this bog. While candidates for local office may still disagree, their proximity and sense of decorum make them less inclined to resort to name-calling and profane references, particularly without TV shock comics to stir up extra outrage.
Most of the people you come across close to home still know how to treat others properly, and give us hope by revealing the better side of our national character. We see this in the recent letter from a gentleman thankful to see local residents stop and show respect for a passing funeral procession. At stories of good Samaritans helping others by changing a tire or jump-starting a dead vehicle. At the good-natured exchange of ideas over coffee and breakfast at a local diner. At the swift response from readers providing financial help to a family whose child needs special treatment for a life-threatening disease.
Local nonprofits, civic organizations, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, they all do their part to instill in our youngsters the right approach to treating others. It’s a shame the images they see on television reinforce the negative side of human nature all too often.
We hope the guidelines of civility seen in communities like ours will trickle up to those on the national scene who stand behind the microphones. Perhaps then we’ll grow leaders who practice restraint and choose words not scrawled on a bathroom wall.
In the meantime, cover your kids’ ears when the TV or radio are on and install those parental filters on the internet. The nastiness wed to our political and social debates likely won’t end until someone yells “stop!”
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to email@example.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.