I am troubled by – these words begin a number of my Facebook and Twitter posts. Among other things, I am troubled by the civic life of our country subsumed under floods of ranting presidential tweets footnoted by spontaneous “Chopper Talk” press briefings that often devolve into rambling nonsense. I am troubled by his cartoonish performances at rallies where there are no barriers between truth and fiction. I am troubled because the way presidents present themselves helps set acceptable standards for public conversation in every coffee shop, bar, and social gathering. All the more so in our age of real time coverage and unfiltered social networking that leaves little opportunity for studied reflection.
For instance, it’s now acceptable to use humiliating name calling as a conventional form of exchange on social media. It’s now acceptable to define others by their most controversial characteristics. That kind of behavior was always around. Most of us grew out of it by the end of our high school years. Those who didn’t seldom rose far in their chosen fields. Relatively small sectors of the population adopted crude, humiliating, demeaning talk as language shared among themselves, I suppose as self defense against the hostile world they believed surrounded them.
Starting with talk radio and the tea party movement, growing with the freedom caucus in congress, and culminating with our current president, this form of crude public discourse has become normalized – just another way of expressing one’s legitimate opinions and feelings as protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, led by the president, he and his supporters now claim to speak for the majority of Americans. It’s given license to any and all, from whatever corner of the political world, to do the same.
The anonymity one can claim on social media makes it safer to ‘troll’ others without fear of consequence. It means conversation in the public forum about important issues is sure to be invaded by demeaningly hostile comments providing nothing useful. Extending beyond social media, the same is just as likely to occur in gatherings where featured speakers are subject to verbal highjacking by loud, crude protesters demanding that their right to be heard outweighs anyone else’s right to be heard.
The idea of decorum, politeness, and adhering to standards of propriety is too often dismissed as more than old fashioned. It’s a sign of ‘snow flake’ weakness, an unwillingness to stand for what is right. To expect public conversation about important issues to rise to a reasonable level of intellectual integrity and respect for one another is the vain hope of “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” to borrow a phrase from Spiro Agnew: he whose integrity was for sale to any bidder.
We can do better. To allow ourselves to sink to such a low level is a national embarrassment that weakens our international standing, and tears at the soul and fabric of society.