Words CAN hurt  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

In a thoughtful column, “The Rhetoric of the Rant,” published in the Washington Post (and available here), Michael Gerson reflects on the plague of incivility practiced in the American public square. He is concerned about “not the blunt earthiness of the farmer or the unguarded political overstatement among friends,” he says. What he wishes us to consider rather, “is a practiced form of verbal aggression, combining harshness and coarseness to shock and intimidate.”


This sort of incivility is indeed rampant in political circles. Conservatives and liberals alike engage in it, and cheer on the verbal excesses of their favorite pundits. (Sadly, though they should know better, Christians engage in it too.) Here is an excerpt from Gerson’s piece:


The practitioners of the rant have their own television shows, radio programs and Web sites. And now it seems they will have their own elected representative, the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Al Franken has made a career of such rants, supposedly asking “Isn’t Cardinal O’Connor an [expletive]?” calling opponents “human filth” and suggesting that his next book might bear the title: I [expletive] Hate Those Right-Wing Mother [expletives]! Which many Minnesotans apparently found refreshing.


The advocates of this approach often describe it (and themselves) as courageous. Franken explains, “My dad did say, ‘If you stand up to bullies they usually back down.’” But those who make their living beating up others to take their lunch money must eventually be categorized as bullies themselves. They take perhaps the most common human vice—self-indulgent anger—and cloak it as a rare virtue. But it is a strange moral inversion to talk of the “courage” of the raised middle finger. Perhaps adolescent rudeness. Maybe boorishness. Not courage, which involves standing up for a belief, not dehumanizing those who don’t share it. America doesn’t need another scolding lecture on the importance of civility. Well, apparently it does. So here goes.


The practice of civility is important to democracy. In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen L. Carter defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together… We should make sacrifices for others not simply because doing so makes social life easier (although it does), but as a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God.”


Respect makes cooperation for the common good possible. Civility acts like grease in the democratic machine; disdain is sand thrown into the gears. But civility is also a direct reflection of our belief in human equality. Even people we vehemently disagree with on the largest issues possess a democratic value equal to our own. Carter argues that this recognition does not preclude “passionate disagreement,” but it does require “civil listening.”


[Thanks to my good friend Steven Garber who alerted me to Gerson’s column.]


This entry was posted at Friday, May 15, 2009 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I recently read David Denby's book Snark, which takes up this theme in a thoroughly current way (commentary on the Obama campaign for instance). I highly recommend it.

June 10, 2009 at 12:43 PM

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