Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Civility Died Long Ago, But It Can Be Raised from the Dead

The past few days I've read article after article, blog after blog, and listened to talking heads and pundits in every corner trying to make sense of the recent outbursts of rudeness and the egocentric attitudes of many in the public light. If one didn't know better, one would think that such regrettable personal habits and deplorable moral conduct were the latest phenomenon to burst onto the scene, leaving an intrigued press corps to dig into his or her past to provide greater color and context. At this moment, I recall (and I'm paraphrasing) a quote from one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1999 UK cult classic, Human Traffic. The nominal lead character, a worker in a soul-destroying clothing store housed inside a mall, states, If you want my opinion, the Antichrist has been with us for a long time and he means business, big business.

That it took an unprovoked and entirely classless outburst on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives before we were even willing to entertain our own complicity in building a culture of narcissism is what astonishes me. Now, all of a sudden, as though our eyes have miraculously been opened we recognize and cite instance after instance of self-centered behavior and puerile rage. That we are at least unwilling to compartmentalize these outbursts as purely race-drive, gender-driven, or class-driven speaks to the fact that we might finally be willing to talk seriously about this matter instead of sensationalizing, trivializing, or even changing the channel. Many of us had been sounding the alarm for years, but I suppose our voices didn't sell enough papers, or satisfy the advertisers, or fit with the program's image. The past is behind us. We can learn much from Joe Wilson's Private War if we are truly willing to confront several sacred cows and social taboos.

It begins with facing our complicity in its formation. We, to some degree or another, built this monster. To what proportion we did is immaterial. Everyone's hands are bloody. We fed it with money, exposure, contributions, endorsements, hype, demographics, ratings, box office receipts, and residuals. Dealing with it properly will require us to take on some discomfort and even some vulnerability. We have shielded ourselves from the truth for so long and refused to speak from our own common humanity for so many years that I know many of us are long out of practice, if, of course, we even learned the practice in the first place.

When a former President invokes race to explain the disproportionate, gratuitous, and wholly uncivil response of a particular Congressman, some will and have easily and defensively jumped to the side of the accused, countering with charges of reverse-racism, media bias, the existence of a so-called liberal agenda, and in so doing eagerly providing visual instances of racist acts perpetrated by African-Americans against Whites as defense. While this is a very natural inclination, it is also an ultimately divisive one. If, however, we really sought to put racism aside altogether we might muster up the courage to speak honestly with one another. That would require every American to admit that deep down inside in ways that we barely admit to ourselves, we hold intrinsic biases and yes, even some unfortunate viewpoints that are driven by racism. Frequently these prejudices are motivated by the fear of losing something we consider precious and that, once lost, will never be regained. However, let me add that before we zealously leap over each other trying to affix the racist label to whichever target seems most deserving, a better strategy might be to attempt to understand from whence our opponents stand. Racism, like any other -ism of oppression is such a systemic, socially enmeshed problem that many times people espouse racist views without even realizing they're doing it. Though the major offenders deserve to be called out, many people who advance racist arguments or opinions speak purely out of ignorance. We can jump all over them if we so choose, but I believe that teachable moments require teachable attitudes, and sometimes gently correcting those who utter objectionable viewpoints rather than resorting to hysteria might be a better way to go about it.

This same desire to be open to the truth, despite significant discomfort factors into any social justice movement which seeks equality for everyone. For example, as a man, I at times find myself immediately angry and defensive upon viewing feminist websites or publications written by women which cite instance after instance of men who objectify and otherwise perpetuate gender stereotypes. These attitudes often reduce females to the status of mere chattel but for that instant I find myself sticking up for them! Most of the men these articles cite are deplorable human beings and utterly unapologetic for both their actions and their words. After I calm down a bit I recognize that I would never have defended them at all had another man brought it up or had I observed it personally in my own life. These days, I've learned enough and talked to enough people to have managed to teach myself for the most part how to distinguish between justified attacks and unjustified attacks, but many people have never had that opportunity, nor have had anyone to inform them of why this discipline is so vitally important. The ability to not immediately personalize every controversial topic is a desperately necessary skill to acquire if we are to live in peace with each other.


Omnipotent Poobah said...

As someone who's done as much, or probably more, to lower the level of discourse in this country, I say mea culpa.

I've been told, as recently as today in fact, that my habit of saying politically incorrect things about politicians is wrong - and on the surface I agree.

But, sometimes embarassing things need be said so that everyone gets a chance to take the sanctimonious down a peg and to remind us all that we have to laugh to keep from crying about the likes of Mr. Wilson.

I can't argue with the Republicans that Wilson's gentle slap on the wrist was partisan. So was his snipe. So were all the combined Democrat and Republican snipes that have gone many times before.

But someone has to start the ball rolling in the right direction and it might as well be making an example of Wilson.

I only hope that Dems will be up to the task of sanctioning their own when the time comes and that Republicans can remember this example the next time they get all pious about bad behavior.

So I'm back to saying rude things. It's what I do, but I have that luxury because I'm not on the floor of Congress - I only speak for myself and no one else. It may not be consistent, but it is strangely American.

Comrade Kevin said...

It's a balance, pure and simple, and few have the inner strength and poise it takes, in my opinion.