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Americans say some truly awful things about other Americans. Telling them, "temper your words" is not going to be enough to fix the problem.
Following the deadly ambush of police officers in Baton Rouge, President Barack Obama went before the cameras to tell Americans that they need to rein in the political invective, particularly as we head in to the presidential conventions, with their “overheated” rhetoric, saying:
“We don’t need inflammatory rhetoric. We don’t need careless accusations thrown around to score political points or to advance an agenda. We need to temper our words and open our hearts – all of us.”
This plea to set a higher standard of debate has become commonplace in American politics – not just from Obama, but from presidents, politicians, and pundits more generally. But if it’s so frequent and widespread, why does it accomplish so little?
The problem is that it’s a mere slogan. It’s like saying we should stop “negative campaigning” and “negative politics;” it’s so non-specific that it becomes a platitude that no one would disagree with. It’s like saying you want the country to be great; everyone is on board with that in the abstract, but not when it comes to the details about which policies will get us there.
Obama is a case in point. In the view of the president, which words, specifically, need to be tempered? Which accusations, in particular, are careless? What rhetoric – said by whom, and when? – is inflammatory?
This is where the trouble starts. Because, like all politicians, Obama has an aversion to criticizing his allies. When he talks about civility in politics, he does one of two things: either he talks in the abstract (as he did in his remarks after the shooting of police in Baton Rouge), or he cites acts of misbehavior almost exclusively committed by his political opponents.
For instance, we’ve seen Obama criticize the likes of Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh for certain comments that they’ve made. He’s often done so on his own initiative, without being prompted by the press corps. But when was the last time Obama specifically mentioned and condemned out-of-bounds rhetoric from Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, or the Black Lives Matter movement?
Never that I can recall.
Naturally, Obama’s Republican and conservative opponents notice this omission, and his one-sided call for civility only inspires cynicism and eye-rolling. At the same time, Obama’s opponents conveniently overlook their own verbal abuses against Obama and his allies. And so we get Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, demonizing and denigrating one another on a daily basis yet “united” in the belief that the belief that the rhetoric – “their rhetoric, not mine” – needs to be tempered.
This is not a good place to be.
We are a nation that says some horrible things about one another. We accuse each other of not caring about liberty and patriotism (something the right often says about the left); we accuse each other of not caring about compassion and human suffering (something the left often says about the right); and we accuse each other of willfully rejecting facts, reason, logic, evidence, and science (something both left and right routinely say about one another). Unless that rhetoric is challenged – specifically, not merely in the abstract; and by allies of the perpetrators, not just by their opponents – then all the platitudes about uniting rather than dividing will fall flat.
How on Earth can you expect people to unite with others, to work with them and open our hearts to them, when at the same time we’re allowing that those others don’t care about liberty, don’t care about compassion, and don’t care about truth? If you’re not standing in defiance of that sort of rhetoric, then you’re not making any effective plea for unity.
President Obama recently made the point that police could improve their community relations if they “acknowledge that there’s a problem” with the behavior of some police officers. The same applies to Obama himself: his plea for civility will be taken more seriously once he owns up to his own rhetorical excesses, as well as those of his allies.
And the same applies to all of us more generally: until we show we can temper our own words, we’re going to have a hard time asking anyone else to do it.
Alasdair Denvil runs The Civil Debate Page.
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