Appearing this week on "Fox & Friends," GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) responded to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) dismissal of the Republican presidential field as "losers."
“There's supposed to – there used to be a line of civility in American politics. And it’s particularly problematic on the left. They never argue with you about your ideas. Their almost instant reaction is to attack you personally and call you a name. And I’m not saying people on the right don’t do it, too, because it happens. But it’s so much more common on the left. I mean, if you read or hear most of the criticisms of me, it's always personal."
Name-calling such as Reid's is certainly a problem in American politics. But Rubio's attitude – that "the other party" obviously spawns more incivility – is also an obstacle to civil discourse that needs to be challenged.
[sharequote align="center"]In politics, we focus on the name-calling being hurled at us, and not to the name-calling from us.[/sharequote]
After all, Rubio isn't the only one who finds it blatantly self-evident which side is more responsible for name-calling. Paul Krugman, columnist for The New York Times, routinely accuses the GOP of not caring about truth and bemoans how "Republicans are very good at demonizing their opponents as individuals." Like Rubio, he doesn't offer any hard evidence to support his claim.
And President Barack Obama is another excellent example of the "it's not me, it's the other guy" attitude toward incivility. He routinely complains about how he's been caricatured – "he's anti-Israel, he's a foreign socialist" – but almost never in his lamentations about "less than loving expressions" does he list himself as a perpetrator. He's only a victim who's conveniently overlooked all the times he's accused his opponents of being social Darwinists, and all the times he's done nothing to chastise his allies for their name-calling.
Remember also that Rush Limbaugh, when he apologized in 2012 to Sandra Fluke for calling her a "slut", insisted that his main failing was in descending to the level of the left. They resort to "names and exaggerations," not the right.
In politics, we largely focus on the name-calling being hurled at ourselves, and not to the name-calling being sent in the other direction. Naturally, when you see the "other" party indulging in this kind of hypocritical, self-servingly selective commitment to civil debate, it's infuriating. In fact, it infuriates you just as much as when the "other" party sees you engaging in the same double-standard.
I know I'll be accused of making a "false equivalence" by saying that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, engage in the same amount of verbal abuse.
But that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that each side indulges in so much invective that it's practically impossible to know who does it more. It's like counting the grains of sand on the left side of the beach versus the right side. Either way, it's a whole lot.
When we talk about civility, there's a massive fixation on declaring which side does it more. It's a fixation that needs to end. Of course it's going to be "obvious" that the other side does more name-calling if you ignore your own side's misbehavior. But once you start applying the same standard of civility to both sides, look out. I make a regular effort on The Civil Debate Page to document this kind of conduct, and – without coming anywhere close to cataloguing all of it – I've found that there's plenty of blame to go around.
(If it really is so obvious which side indulges in more invective, then there should be no problem coming up with a rigorous, empirical study that proves the point. Go ahead, show me.)
As biblically trite as it might sound, it all comes down to taking the beam out of our own eye. We have episodic infatuations with civil debate that burn bright and then flame out. Remember the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)? It resulted in the National Institute of Civil Discourse, an advocacy group that you've probably never heard from since.
That's because this isn't a job for non-profits, or politicians or pundits, either. At least, it better not be, because they're all failing. This is our job as individuals. We need to pay attention to the way we describe the people we disagree with, and stop pretending that we're chiefly victims of name-calling, and not perpetrators of it as well.
That's how we're going to get a political system that enlightens our understanding rather than inciting our hatred. A system that we can be proud to be a part of, regardless of who it elects into office in 2016 or any election to come.
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