Robert B. Simpson: Our 'discourse' is disgraceful

January 11, 2014 

It would be good if 2014 could somehow be free of much of the rancor, snarling, and downright hatred that was so prevalent in 2013. I'm not holding my breath, you understand. But I like to imagine how much more pleasant life could be if political opinions could be discussed with at least a touch of courtesy instead of being hurled like hand grenades. And then hurled again. And again. I imagine how much healthier we'd all be if attacks, even on persons we truly dislike, and on really enticing targets, like politicians, could be couched in civil language.

There is a coarseness and lack of civility that has somehow crept into our language and our public actions that not too many years ago would have been considered outrageous and unacceptable, like an off-color joke at a church picnic. Now anything goes. It's hard to know who or what to blame for this trend. Not terrorists, surely. And not Muslims. Not any of our favorite culprits. The explosion in technology that allows near-instant and endless communication may be part of the problem, hungry as it is for more and wilder content. Or maybe it's just us, unwilling to teach our children limits. And willing to accept today's crudities and harshness without complaint.

One, but certainly not the only one, of the endlessly blabbering networks has gotten rid of some of its "star" talking heads lately because they went way beyond even the near-nonexistent limits the network imposed. Martin Bashir was fired for an attack on Sarah Palin that was so excessively foul as to bring into question the man's sanity. The network fired Alec Baldwin for I forget which one of his string of transgressions. And then Ms. Melissa Harris-Perry, on her show on the same network, recently led a group of entertainers in a chortling discussion of a photo of the Mitt Romney family, with Governor Romney's adopted grandson, an African-American child, seated on his knee. The tone of the chuckle-fest was that here was something terribly out of place, a black child adopted by wealthy white Mormons.

Oddly, of those who howled so loudly just a few days earlier that Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty was being robbed of his right to freedom of speech (he wasn't), none have leaped to their feet to cry that Melissa Harris-Perry is being robbed of hers (she isn't). Stranger still, Melissa Harris-Perry, hosting the group crudeness, was herself a mixed-race child who grew up in a Mormon family. I guess when it comes to modern political insults, opportunity for tastelessness trumps background.

This example of hateful, insensitive, racist garbage is one of the latest, but it is far from unique. Left-wing figures made public fun of Sarah Palin's Down Syndrome baby. Right-wing figures made public fun of Amy Carter and of Chelsea Clinton. Most of the attackers seemed immune to censure and oblivious to any undeserved pain they might have inflicted on others. If regret was ever expressed, it was usually of the faux-apology, "if anyone was offended by what I said," variety.

This latest outrage, though, ended by providing an example of grace and humility that could be a faint promise, maybe a tempting road map, for how we might all act in this fresh new year when dealing with our political urges and passions. Melissa Harris-Perry offered not an "if anyone was offended" fake apology, but an apparently sincere, teary-eyed expression of regret to the Romney family for an act for which she accepted full responsibility. No pretending it was accidental. No suggestion that it was misunderstood by folks too sensitive to see it was in fun. She said it was dead wrong, it was totally her mistake, and she regretted it. And then Governor Romney, in a gracious response that spoke well of his character, accepted the apology with gentle words and refused to be drawn into further controversy over the matter.

Maybe we're turning a corner. But as I said earlier, I'm not holding my breath.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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