“As citizens we have to be more thoughtful
and more educated and more informed.
I turn on the TV and I see these grown people
screaming at each other, and I think, well,
if we don’t get our civility back we’re in trouble.”
~ Emmylou Harris
I’m not sure to which “grown people” Emmylou Harris was referring, but her quote captures quite succinctly our current national descent into incivility. Oh, sure, we get that political seasons have never been known for their calm and courtesy; the turmoil has always ranged from motivational speeches and witty repartee to sharp exchanges and stern accusations. But there has always been that invisible line drawn in the political sands across which a Presidential — or other — candidate crosses only at his or her peril. Well, to borrow from the title of S.E. Hinton’s 1971 novel, that was then, this is now.
And now there has been a seismic shift in the practice of civility, respect, decorum and compassion. Lines indeed have been crossed, restraint has been thrown out the window and the buffer of protocol and those values which society has always held sacrosanct have been breached. For someone who has worked with young people for decades and teaches and blogs about civility, business etiquette, ethics and empathy in the workplace and life, I am dismayed to see a candidate for the Presidency of the United States repeatedly defile the most sacred tenets that our country holds dear.
I believe that to stop the poison of incivility from spreading and to restore civility to our political, public and private discourse in its various forms citizens must resist being led down this slippery slope. We must all speak up and speak out in favor of civility and what I call The Three E’s: etiquette, ethics and empathy. And that is the purpose of my entry today.
So, politics entirely aside — and without regard to positions on issues or proposed policies and specifically focusing on behavior — the situation is so bad that many of the statements and words uttered by this candidate are unprintable in this blog as well as many other publications. The candidate in question has no restraints or limits in accusing, besmirching, ridiculing or offending individuals or segments of the population anywhere in the universe, including women, people of color, those of different faiths and ethnicities, people with disabilities or even Americans whose children have died in military service to their country. The few people he has genuinely praised — aside from his immediate family members — alarmingly include former KGB foreign intelligence officer and current Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un — world leaders who are not allies of the U.S. and who have repeatedly violated the human rights of their citizens and consistently try to bring harm to neighboring nations.
Political leaders have a duty to act responsibly and set a positive example of how to campaign for office, debate one’s opponents in a manner befitting a statesman or stateswoman and unify the nation rather than divide it.
For example, as a nation we have been trying for years to come to grips with bullying in schools, on campuses and in workplaces. Bullying has reached epidemic proportions not only in face-to-face situations but in social media, which has become a hotbed of incivility. The scope of bullying in America has become a major public health issue. The US federal government as well as individual states have instituted programs to help parents, teachers, workplaces and community leaders prevent bullying and incivility nationwide and it has been one of the most important topics covered by the media in recent years.
Then, in the midst of this struggle along comes a Presidential candidate who possesses command of the airwaves and attention of the world and chooses to conduct himself in a shockingly reckless manner, crossing forbidden societal lines of decency. And I am quite tired of the excuse for such loutish actions as a rejection to being “politically correct,” a cynical phrase that is code for justifying the trashing the principles of civil behavior by using the excuse that it violates free speech. But, are civility and free speech mutually exclusive? I don’t think so.
Wrong Message for Our Children
Thus, when we adults see and hear such shocking behavior and statements from a public figure in the media on a daily basis for more than a year we have to worry that our children, whose conduct is influenced by that of adults, will begin to accept such horrific behavior as normal. The constant barrage of disrespect, mockery and hatefulness toward others sends terrible and heartbreaking messages to our children, either that these are acceptable words and deeds to use against one another or that there is an adult with great authority who has gone crackers and other adults are not stepping in to correct the situation.
Unfortunately, for some adults who are disposed to resentment and bigotry witnessing such incivility by such an influential person merely gives them permission let go of their restraints. Even for some who well know right from wrong, continuous exposure to such dysfunction can chip away at their convictions.
From parents and educators to community leaders and heads of nations, this is a challenging situation for those who have been devoting their efforts to curbing bullying, increasing the self-esteem and self-confidence of the nation’s youth and instilling in them the highest standards of ethical and honorable behavior. While not all children will buy in to the spectacle that they are witnessing, they might, again, wonder why more adults are not standing up to this outrageous and dangerous display. Although just in the past week many officials in government or retired from service have been speaking out strongly against the candidate, which makes me have hope that our long national nightmare might be coming to an end.
But while this unfortunate situation continues it’s imperative that parents provide increased guidance to their children, discussing not only the law but the spirit behind the First Amendment. In the words of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “The hallmark of the protection of free speech is to allow ‘free trade in ideas’—even ideas that the overwhelming majority of people might find distasteful or discomforting.” But the Constitution’s protection of free speech is not absolute, so it would be helpful to have discussions about how accusations of “slander,” “defamation of character” “libel” and threats to do harm to someone do not necessarily clash with or are protected under the First Amendment.
An Example for the World
In addition to our children’s welfare, other nations look to the United States as a world leader. They are taking note of reckless comments by this Presidential candidate about U.S. allegiance to NATO, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the banning of Muslims from the US, splitting up families that have undocumented members and on and on. That is not what America is all about. Although the US is a powerful nation, it is still a young nation. We are a nation of people with heart, but our history shows that we have made some mistakes. We are all about correcting those mistakes and continually moving forward, become more enlightened and inclusive.
I am old enough, for example, to have experienced what life was like for women in the last century — back in the 1960s and ’70s (think Mad Men, but not necessarily with all the glamour). I also witnessed the pain endured by people whose skin was dark, who were gay, disabled, from another country or practiced a different religion. That is why the slogan of the candidate in question, “Make America Great Again,” is so chilling: I agree with those who say it is code for let’s take the country back to the days when women, people of color, gay and disabled people an many people of certain ethnicities were denied the same rights as white men.
Today, America continues to be a great country, greater than ever. But it hasn’t always been great for everyone. Even the famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal,” didn’t include women or people of color who were forced to be slaves, and it didn’t extend that equality to many of the nation’s first immigrants from Europe who built our country and made it great. Many ethnic groups such as the Irish, Germans and Italians as well as Jewish people were discriminated against, including men, women and children.
Therefore, although America was viewed optimistically as the great “melting pot” — that is, the assimilation of immigrants into society as equals and a whole so there would not be Irish-, Polish-, African- or Native-Americans, etc., but simply Americans one and all — we have been struggling and evolving toward that vision for centuries. Today, America is greater than it was yesterday, and we want to keep moving forward, not go backward to some perceived better times.
Forward, Not Backward
Thus, when I hear a Presidential candidate –someone to whom the world is listening — encourage supporters at a rally to attack a protestor, accuse a sitting President of not being an American citizen, insult an American war hero, mock a disabled person, incite violence at his rallies, denigrate people of various origins, build a wall to people out, ban others from our shores, summarily kill the families of terrorists, reinstate torture as a means of interrogation, bomb certain oil fields and then take the oil, and other chilling pronouncements that threaten our safety, liberty and Constitutional rights, it occurs to me that the candidate’s real goal is not to “Make America Great Again, but to make America hate again. Let’s not let that happen.
Until next time,
Note: The Wedding Series will resume on Tuesday, September 6.