Driving on an interstate recently, I tuned into to Terry Gross’ excellent interview show on National Public
Radio. Her guest, a national journalist with a conservative bent, had offended a nebulous group with white nationalist leanings called the “alt right.” The next thing he knew, his Twitter account exploded with racist, sexist and personally threatening tweets, including depictions of his wife and 7-year-old daughter in pornographic scenes. The journalist said he worked with law enforcement authorities to protect himself and his family and bemoaned the reality that the ugly undersides of Twitter and other social media are now part of our international fabric.
While the journalist and his family endured their ordeal, all of us have been living through the worst election year in recent memory. We have all heard Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump insult women generally and specifically, minorities and anyone who dares criticize him in any way. No lesser institution than the New York Times recently published a two-page spread of Trump’s 282 insults of people, places, and things. We know his feelings about Hillary Clinton and Rosie O’Donnell, but Trump also has negative opinions of major league baseball — “so ridiculous,” other Republican candidates — “mere puppets,” Amazon — “a no profit company,” the State of the Union address — “very hard to watch,” and T-Mobile — “I think the service is terrible.”
I know no one in Trump’s league when it comes to insulting tweets or insults in general, but he is not alone in spewing ugliness.
Hillary Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters “deplorables,” and talking heads of all political persuasions are slinging mud of their own.
Saturday Night Live and a raft of other comedic shows skewer widely and not always kindly, but at least we get a chuckle.
My question is when did all of this become OK? When did it become acceptable to call other people names, to demean someone’s physical appearance, intelligence and character? How did we become desensitized to personal insults? How did we come to embrace and enjoy them?
Clearly, I am not the only person put off by political incivility. A quick Google search brings up a plethora articles on the topic as well as scholarly research on the topic. These include an article in Commentary magazine entitled “Politics of Incivility: Where Discourtesy Meets Democracy in Modern American Life,” a Huffington Post piece asking “Is There an Incivility Ceiling for Women?”—apparently, we tolerate rude behavior a lot less than men do, and research from the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse (who knew that existed?) and KRC Research, both looking at how much of this vicious incivility we are willing to take.
Truth be told, American politics has always been rough and tumble, to put it politely. George Washington seems to have been most everyone’s choice as our first president, but by his second term political parties were taking hold. Along with partisan politics came rough campaigning, including allegations of sexual misconduct going all the way back to our Founding Fathers. Think Thomas Jefferson.
It seems to me that the difference between then and now is not the ugliness of the incivility, but that it is with us 24/7. It took weeks and longer for political news and campaign rhetoric to travel to the hinterlands, and some voters — all white, landowning men in our early years — probably did not get a full dose of messaging until after the election was over. Some may not have known there was an election.
Contrast that with our Election 2016 experience.
As I write this column, CNN plays on a television in my office. I have seen Donald Trump snarling from Ohio, and Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama hugging in Winston Salem. An endless stream of talking heads has weighed in on what we viewers should think about all this, both pro and con, and prognosticating about the rapidly approaching outcome. I flick through channels, and every channel that covers “news” is full of campaigning, even though most people in our country and around the world are going about our lives totally outside campaigning. In short, for early Americans — whatever their politics — campaigning was not in their faces all day, every day. Incivility might have reigned, but without television, radio, internet, social media and the U.S. Postal Service, they did not have their noses rubbed in it.
I am no Pollyanna about any of this, having been around the political block a few times myself. On one of those trips, I was even portrayed as a hooker, though if that had been my chosen profession, I should have started decades earlier. I suspect the Twitter-afflicted journalist feels the same way.
That said, I have thought of one of my mother’s favorite sayings most” days of 2016. “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”