Abusive speech and name calling

My wife posted a note on her Facebook page that begins like this,

Partisan speech can be effective without being personal, without name calling, without vitriol, or invective. Instead of you lie, try “you misrepresent reality.” Our current political speech, especially by those on the sidelines, especially the news/entertainment media, is abusive, calumniating, castigating, censorious, disparaging, insulting, maligning, obloquious, offensive, opprobrious, rude, sarcastic, scathing, scolding, scurrilous, sharp-tongued, snide, and vilifying. Yes, I spent too much time playing with an online thesaurus.

So don’t call folks names like Muslim, racist, socialist or baby killer unless they claim the name for themselves. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say in polite conversation in the chapel in front of the mural of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemene. Don’t take stuff so personally. Don’t generalize the attributes of a few to the entire group. And always do your best to understand and truly communicate.

Who could argue with being more polite? I think Obama is wise to stay above the fray and has done an excellent job staying out of the mud. But it is important to note that it has not particularly slowed down the lies or tempered the viciousness of some on the right. Nor has there been much in the way of a hue and outcry from the moderate right condemning this hate filled speech.

Historically, the call for “decorum” has had three primary functions. Between equals (or close to equals) decorum is a way of assuring that no “equal” can gain power over others. In politics this is exemplified by Roberts Rules of Order.

But the call for “decorum” is also used between non-equals. In this case it is always used by the powerful to quell dissent. People who have little or no say in the political system and little or no power economically often have no recourse against oppression except to shout loud enough to be heard and, in many cases, physically to demand a hearing. In some societies dissent of any level is met with violence and further repression. We are, however, a democracy and we do have some rights. This does not mean that there is no repression. There is both economic and political repression in our past and present. But because we are a democracy and because everyone can vote, those with true power (often the economic elite) use the fallacious argument that because everyone is equal in one aspect (that they can vote) they therefore are equal in all other respects. We already agree that equals, meeting in a specific assembly, do need rules of decorum to maintain equality. But this same argument is uses to criticize decent that springs from real oppression (an institutional lack of equality) simply because we all are equal in one other, often irrelevant, factor (voting). When blacks protested in the streets it was often noted by whites just how rowdy and loud and demanding blacks were as if they would have achieved equal rights without the threat of violent protest. “Don’t they know their place?” was a common refrain. What is interesting is that the debate in the 1950’s and 1960’s was not always about whether equal rights was moral, but over just how unseemly blacks were to complain so loud or to ask for too much, too fast (both are aspects of politeness, not morality.) Some people today dream of the golden days when citizens worked hard all day (in their 12 hour back breaking job) and never complained or did anything impolite like calling a strike or protesting against the well-bread capitalists with all their Emily Post training. The labor movement bothered people, it seems, more because a worker should never be so unseemly as to ask for more than they are given than for any moral or economic reasons.

Lastly, the call for decorum is used often to simply quell legitimate and legal political decent even among equals. During the Bush administration Cheney argued (or strongly implied) that dissent was akin to being unpatriotic (the ultimate form of rudeness.) Conservatives often called for more polite discourse during the debate over Iraq. But this was just a long-standing way to quell dissent. Since all debate was rude, many in the Bush administration refused to listen to any critique at all. You don’t have to listen to someone’s words if you are convinced ahead of time that their tone is impolite. Liberals sometimes do the same thing. It would be equally unfair to assume that all dissent over healthcare is a form of unfair (rude) discourse.

When we are assembled together, there are good and pragmatic reasons to follow certain rules. It allows all of us an equal voice in the crowd. Politeness to some extent is required. We can also insure that we do what we can to give the powerless a place at the table. We cannot expect those who are exploited and not equal in fundamental ways to shut up and follow the rules that we demand of those who are truly equal. But, in all other respects, we should focus less on the question of rudeness and more on the question of truth. If someone makes an argument that contains misrepresentations and there is compelling evidence that they are deliberate, then we should say that it was likely a lie. If a person acts, for all intensive purposes, as a racist, we should point that out. We should demand honesty and fairness, but it is no sign of rudeness to point out where it is lacking. The healthcare debate went south because the left did not step in and call a duck a duck. Millions came to believe the lies (yes lies) of Fox News (sic) because the left was too disjointed to point out the obvious.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m so thrilled. I’ve been quoted!

  2. Welcome to the world of the ‘evil’ patriot of America.

    Where one is called racist, bigot, homophobe, xenophobe, “You will accept socialism even if we have to kill you’ ETC..

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