Same Argument, Different Decade

Words have power.

I once had an acquaintance who justified his use of two of the most vile racial and religious epithets by saying that he applied them only in terms of personal behavior characteristics, and not as a blanket reference to individuals of a particular race or religion. His argument was totally specious, of course; there was, is, no excuse for the use of such appellations, and there are plenty of available adjectives in the English language to define poor behavior. One need never resort to emotionally-charged words with a history of offense and disparagement.

Perhaps that’s why I was surprised when, commenting on the objectionable use of a brand-new belligerent term frequently splashed across the pages of a progressive newsletter, I was roundly trolled and trounced by its readers. I had (somewhat naively, I suppose) expected better of those whose worldview seemed to encompass a wider perspective than the narrowness of conservative thinking. But, almost without exception, each commentor defended her/his use of the offensive nickname, one even going so far as to say that it was merely a “descriptor”.

Same argument, different decade.

Another of these purportedly broad-minded individuals was infuriated by my suggestion that answering bad behavior with name-calling actually served no purpose; that heckling made no difference in the behavior of those so labeled, and served only to perpetuate the cycle of anger. My statement, he commented, was self-righteous. Reading his words, I chuckled, for self-righteous, as well as hypocritical, were exactly the terms I had, in the privacy of my own mind, applied to those who used the offensive terminology under discussion.

But then I wondered: Why was it that these supposedly free-thinking people were defending the indefensible? If my old acquaintance had risen up in their midst and spewed his hateful rhetoric across the pages of their newsletter, claiming justification for applying it only to the behavior of people and not to the people themselves, these same commentors would have bitterly denounced him and banned him from their pages.

Evil, it seems, is only evil when done by other people, and specifically people outside one’s preferred group. Hypocrisy, however, appears to be universal…as is disappointment. I was bitterly disappointed to find that the group with which I mostly align myself– freethinkers, the broad-minded, forward-thinking individuals–were just as hypocritical, unkind, and sanctimonious as those conventional traditionalists who abhor change.

I wondered, too, about the ages of those who defended the use of that new and distasteful “descriptor”. I suspected (totally without evidence, I admit) that most of those who replied had reached no more than their third or fourth decade, if that. At my advanced and advancing age, one has seen and experienced a lot more of the hatred so rife in this weary world, and has learned the advantages of practicing that ancient phrase, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

After a couple of mild responses to their provocative justifications for their continued use of the spiteful nomenclature, I sadly relinquished the argument, realizing there was no point. I doubted that these assumedly-younger people had been raised, as I had, with the chiding phrase, “Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” They had no grounding in simple good manners with which to comprehend my point: that creating a new slang term to represent an artificially concocted subset of humanity was not a descriptor, but in and of itself offensive and intended to elicit a negative reaction in the reader/listener. By using an emotionally-charged term, they intentionally bypassed the logic circuits within the brains of those hearing or reading their stories—and that is, as it has always been, the real rationale for the use of such terminology. It “others”—dehumanizes, demonizes—those whom it references, resulting in the speaker/writer automatically becoming the hero of her or his own story.

For my own part, though, I will always prefer to use precise and exact adjectives to describe individual bad behavior, words with which the English language abounds. Words such as entitled. Or belligerent. Bellicose—I particularly love that one, as I do pugnacious. Rude. Argumentative. Disrespectful. Confrontational. Sanctimonious. Insolent. Bad-mannered. Loud. Aggressive. Lawless. Uncivil. Disorderly. Unprofessional. Abhorrent.

And, of course, hypocritical and self-righteous.

These are words that have nothing to do with race, or religion, or gender. They are words that genuinely describe the behavior, not the person; words that have not been concocted to encompass a belittling physical description.

Words have power, and it is imperative that we use that power not just precisely, but to good purpose. And that purpose is never accomplished by employing generalities, epithets, or incivility in our speech.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Please Stop Using the Term ‘Karen'”, from December 1, 2021.

Political Civility

§  This essay was originally printed in July, 2019.  I’m now (in September, 2020), pre-posting it once more so that it will appear on the day following the Federal elections.  As I do this, I feel almost sick with fright; terror  of what we may see happening in our country on that morning–our country that has not been so divided since the Civil War…  §

In May of 2019 I was dealing with the potentially fatal illness of my favorite pet, holding my head up as I prepared for the possibility of releasing her to her final journey, when a series of hate-filled e-mails sent me into an emotional tailspin. The e-mails had nothing whatever to do with pets or illness or any other life-altering, sad situations.  They were political.

And while facing the possible loss of my favorite cat hadn’t forced tears from my eyes, the e-mails made me weep.

The first contained a graphic that proclaimed:

“We hated Obama like you hate Trump.  Except we hated Obama because he hated America.  You hate Trump because YOU hate America”.

Dismayed and affronted, I nevertheless replied to the e-mail mildly, saying just that I found this very offensive, and asking not be sent anything like it again.

Yet only a short 24 hours later, I received another e-mail, this time referencing those whose political views were similar to mine, alluding to us by name-calling and bullying.  We were, it seems, “Libtards”.  We were “Wingnuts”.

Previous to this, I’d already dealt with and dismissed being derided as a “Snowflake”. Despite knowing that it was not meant as a compliment, I accepted the appellation proudly.  Snowflakes are incredible: intricate, astoundingly beautiful and infinitely individual—created of water, without which life itself cannot exist.  Joined together, snowflakes are capable of creating massive, unstoppable forces for change, such as blizzards and avalanches.

But, hitting me at an already-low point in my life, the abusive invective of these latest e-mails was not something I could shrug off.  Instead, they wounded me at the very wellspring of my heart.

I do not, under any circumstances, ridicule or deride a person by bullying and invective for their political choices.   I firmly insist on being respectful toward the person, even when I just as firmly disagree with their beliefs.  Politically, I consider myself to be an Independent middle-of-the-roader, slightly left-leaning, but always open to civil discourse and the possibility of changing my mind.

I voted for President Barack Obama, and, while I certainly did not approve of everything he did, I thought him to be far from the worst President we had ever seen to that time (after all, I lived through Nixon).

And I did not vote for President Trump.  Like our late, greatly lamented former First Lady, Barbara Bush, I’d been reading about Trump the greedy and unethical businessman, Trump the immoral adulterer, since the early 1980s.  I’d made up my mind about him at that time, and nothing I heard him say, nothing I saw him do, during his campaign, gave me cause to alter my opinion.  Had I been persuaded in that direction, reading the 2016 article, “I Sold Trump $100,000 Worth of Pianos.  Then He Stiffed Me”1  would have sealed my opinion of the man forever.

But nothing, NOTHING, in my judgements about either Trump or Obama signal that I do not love my country.  In fact, my opinions represent exactly what is best about the United States of America: the right to personal convictions.  Liberty.  Freedom of expression.  The right to choose one’s leaders, and to criticize those leaders without fear of retribution or reprisal.  The right to see matters from differing perspectives.  The right—the requirement—to stand up for one’s beliefs.  The requirement to be respectful toward those who believe differently.

But now derision and ridicule, vicious mockery, name-calling, bullying, harassment of and persecuting others for their beliefs have become the standard; have taken the place of civil debate.

And I find that horrifically, painfully sad.  That is not what I have always understood America, or Americans—the concept, nor the reality—to be.

And so, receiving such harassment by e-mail, and already in a saddened state of mind, I wept.

I will never claim that those who have stood with President Trump are in some way un-American.  I will call not call them wingtards or nutjobs or  deplorables, or even, as their own President called them (exulting that  Covid-19 put an end to handshakes), “disgusting people”.  They are merely individuals who hold a different viewpoint, one which I barely understand and with which I very firmly disagree.  But that I do not agree with their choice of leader makes me in no way unAmerican or vile or deplorable, either.  On the contrary, it makes me a true American: one who is unafraid to speak up for her convictions; who accesses her right to freedom of expression, to liberty.

I, an American woman, do not deserve to be made to weep, to be derided and insulted, for my political opinions, least of all through the faceless, cowardly medium of an internet communication.

My right to view and work for and love this wonderful country of ours in the way that I see best is my personal pursuit of happiness.  And I would not have it shadowed by those who demean America by deriding the liberties bestowed by the Constitution upon its citizens.

1https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “29 Things”,
which can be found in the Archives from November 6, 2019.

Reading the Comments

§   Despite knowing that reading the comments probably isn’t wise, I still get sucked into doing it. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination.   §

I’ve been reading the comments at the end of news stories again.

This is never a good idea. Never, ever. Not under any circumstances.

Despite knowing this fact, I still get sucked into doing it occasionally. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination as I scroll through viciousness, ignorance, name-calling, uncivility, brutality and bullying. I read words smacking of Nazism and Fascism, and retch to see politics dragged into even the most innocuous stories. (A kitten rescued from a drainpipe? Someone will sling “libs” and “cons” into the comments, or blame Presidents present and past.) And despite the fact that I am aware that much of this trolling is done by paid performers–more on that in a moment–it shocks and terrifies me.

[As an addendum to that “paid trolls” remark: A few years and one President back, I read the comments at the end of a review for one of the never-ending Star Wars series of movies. A commenter who had apparently not liked the movie ended his remarks with a bitter, “Thanks, Obama”. My reaction was, at first, “Huh?! Say what? Excuse me?!” Then I realized that the commenter probably hadn’t finished his weekly quota of anti-President Obama remarks and was in danger of not getting paid. I really do wonder, sometimes, if the money is good enough that I should look into becoming a paid troll.]

Trolls aside, though, the level of sheer, vile nastiness in the news comments inevitably leaves me gasping in disbelief. Then I find I must give myself a stern talking-to regarding my own naivete. I realize that my generation, as well as my middle-class upbringing, has led me to hold certain unrealistic expectations regarding manners and civility. As a child, I was taught to address adults as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. (Ms. was not yet a glimmer on a feminist horizon), or as Sir or Ma’am. I might despise the individual whom I was addressing with a depth of coldness unknown even to Dante’s hell, but I had to be polite. As I grew to adulthood, courteous behavior extended to those with whom I had political disagreements. I might debate with them, ignore them, avoid them, or, in the depth of extremity, roll my eyes and walk away—but, overall, I had to be polite. Conservative or Liberal, Democrat and Republican, were points of view, nothing more; they did not define someone as a person any more than did being Roman Catholic or Buddhist.

My choice was usually, whenever possible, to avoid those with whom I had no common ground. When contact was unavoidable, or when faced with a comment so utterly outrageous that I found myself nearly choking, I preferred to stand my ground by saying calmly, “I do not agree” and walking away. If pressed further, I would firmly refuse to discuss the matter, falling back on worn but useful phrases: “This is neither the time nor the place”; “We must agree to disagree”; or the straightforward truth: “My mind is made up on this matter, and I refuse to debate it with you.” Once I was even heard to say, “I simply don’t like you well enough to continue this discussion.” That was as near to being rude as I, brought up to be civil, allowed myself.

But the anonymity of the internet has erased the requirement for civility, and that viciousness has extended into real-time, everyday interactions. Perhaps the number of road rage incidents were the first breach in the bulwark of civility; now the madness extends to every moment of life. Hearing details of parking lot quarrels that end in fatal shootings evinces little more than a sigh from the news audience, while spiteful, malicious political commercials are an accepted part of the barrage leading up to elections.

I sometimes contemplate a terrifying idea: What might happen if it was possible for the words written by commenters at the end of news stories to cause physical harm? There would be a bloodbath each newsday! As I envision that possibility, I am forced to wonder if it might not prove be a profound solution to the problem of uncivility in today’s society. After all, if Darwinian theory is to be believed, races evolve when those best suited to survive reproduce. And so I picture those of us who choose civility standing back, hands covering our eyes and faces turned aside from the horrifying carnage, as all the mannerless, bullying, cruel individuals destroy one another via their brutal comments and remarks. Then perhaps we survivors—broken-hearted but courteously and with compassion–could respectfully bury the dead, pick up the pieces, and establish rational debate as a measure of civil society once more.