Apr 192010
Authors: Ashley Reynolds, Daily O’Collegian Oklahoma State U.

(U-WIRE) – Last week, Sen. Tom Coburn made headlines by calling the Speaker of the House “a nice lady.”

The nationwide reaction that followed made me wonder: What does it say about our society that one legislator calling another “nice” went viral?

The notion of civility in politics seems completely lost on Americans today. A billboard in Wheat Ridge, Colo., displays a picture of President Barack Obama and reads, “President or Jihad?”

Fox News anchor E.D. Hill teased a segment covering a fist bump between the president and first lady with, “A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist jab?”

Wendy Doniger of the Washington Post said of former Gov. Sarah Palin, “Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she’s a woman.” And prominent feminist/comedian Margaret Cho described her as “evil.”

Americans have been desensitized to these types of attacks over the last two decades and even seem to take pleasure in them.

We claim not to, but television ratings and book sales tell a different story. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher and the like seem to be giving the public what they want. Books, such as Ann Coulter’s “How to Talk To a Liberal (If You Must),” hit No. 1.

We criticize radical governments, but remain glued to TV coverage of protestors chanting, “Bush lied, thousands died!” or funeral crashers holding “God Hates Fags” signs.

Nothing gets a movement more free press than coronary-inducing rants and carelessly shouted ad hominem attacks, and nothing is off-limits anymore, including babies with Down’s syndrome.

Why is our political discourse so plagued by indecency and personal attacks, and what effect is it having on our society?

P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, said civility “determines the strength of our society.” To explain the widespread decline in civility we suffer from, Forni points to children raised with lots of self-esteem but no self-control, beginning with the Boomer generation.

“People today are so self-absorbed they don’t know the value of restraint, and yet you cannot have a healthy society without it,” Forni says.

Americans’ self-absorption is likely a main culprit in our inability as a people to deal with exposure to opinions that differ from our own. Another facilitator of incivility is technology.

“The internet has depersonalized our relationships. We e-mail, instant message and make anonymous comments online. We react quickly and don’t censor ourselves,” Forni notes.

The Internet, and specifically its gift of anonymity, is a huge contributing factor to this problem.

Whatever the true cause of the nasty nature of political (and really any other kind of) discussion today, likely a combination of culture and technology, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Forni said, “Studies prove we are at an all-time low when it comes to being civil,” and if we cannot be civil, “democracy is weakened.”

Incivility in its extreme forms leads to violence and even anarchy, and even in its mildest form doesn’t promote the kind of dialogue and cooperation America needs its leaders to engage in.

It’s important that we as a country take a step back and think about how we interact with each other.

Hundreds of civility projects now exist across the country, and government programs like NASA have begun holding events to raise employees’ awareness of civility. Manners and civility, once taught at home, are now incorporated into curriculum by school districts.

These attempts are important but can only go so far. As individuals, we need to start taking responsibility for our actions. Think about what you say before you say it.

For example, I might be tempted to say, “Joe Biden is a ******,” but I hope I’d take a minute and think, “Now, Ashley, you haven’t even met him…”

Sen. Coburn offered an important lesson to us all: “Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they aren’t a good person.” What a novel thought.

Ashley Reynolds is a political science senior at Oklahoma State University. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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