Manners — which are really just an outward expression of basic respect — have never been a partisan matter, and aren’t now, either, with rudeness and restraint distributed in no discernible way across the political spectrum.
For decades, it was mostly Republicans who railed against the “coarsening of the culture” by Hollywood liberals and the offspring of hippies with no standards. Comedian Kathy Griffin’s intentionally unacceptable but maybe not so intentionally unfunny photo of herself with a bloody fake head that resembles President Donald Trump’s is a perfect example of this Fox News staple — the classless immorality of the clueless left.
But as reality stars and political leaders get harder to tell apart, it does seem like time for an update.
In the Lone Star State, we have lawmakers in a shoving match on the House floor over sanctuary cities. One of them, a Republican, is so proud of threatening to shoot a Democratic colleague — “I’ll put a bullet in your head!” — that he tweets about it. In Montana, an aspiring politician raises $100,000 overnight after throttling a reporter who’d dared to ask him a policy question. When he wins, supporters guffaw through his apology.
While representing us abroad, the president tries his usual bone-crushing, “quién es más macho?” handshake on the new French prime minister, and pushes aside the leader of tiny Montenegro on his way to a photo op.
The real problem is not just that these individuals seem to have the impulse control of preschoolers but that this behavior is so widely rewarded that we’re guaranteed more of the same and worse.
On the left, arguing for civility and particularly for civil language will reliably get you accused of such quaint sexist cliches as “pearl-clutching” and needing a fainting couch.
On the right, we hear different words but the same basic accusation — that to question the wisdom of high-T swordplay makes you a “snowflake” or “pajama boy” who needs to toughen the (expletive) up.
Isn’t it obvious that this kind of common ground is not progress but regression? Conservatives, can you imagine Ronald Reagan pushing anyone aside to get to the front of the line?
Progressives, can you really see the link between rude words and rough actions only when it’s Trump praising thugs or calling on supporters to throw protesters out of a rally? The harumph that “we’ve been too nice for too long” is not even true.
It’s always the bullies — the same braggarts sneering about smelling salts and snowflakes — who are the first to fold when real strength is required. But it’s up to the rest of us to stop cheering them on.
At Colby College, former Vice President Joe Biden pointed the way in a commencement address that made me want to try harder to restore our coarsened culture. Biden’s dad, “a graceful, high school-educated man, who was well-read and a truly decent man,” used to tell him, “Joey, every, every, every man, woman and child … deserves to be treated with dignity.”
“And all of us — all of us — have to do better when it comes to building the bonds of empathy.” Those who disagree are “not some flattened version of humanity, reducible to a collection of parts and attributes. They’re a whole person, flawed, struggling to make it in the world just like you. You have to work to ascribe to your opposition the same emotional complexity you find in yourself.”
As a young senator, Biden said, he’d made the mistake of seeing his GOP colleague Jesse Helms as heartless for opposing what later became the Americans With Disabilities Act. When he learned that Helms and his wife had recently adopted a 14-year-old with disabilities, he realized that questioning the motives of those who differ not only leads to incorrect assumptions but makes agreement later impossible.
Treating one other with dignity requires just as much grit and strength of character as when Joe’s dad recommended it. But if our leaders won’t model it for us, then it’s all the more important that we model it for them.