Something very ugly is happening in the public arena.
The level of vulgarity has fallen so low that we have candidates for the presidency of the United States, our highest ikon demanding knowledge and shrewdness, sparing in schoolyard expletives. The media no longer flinch at using curse words which once were forbidden to any kind of polite conversation. Displays of sexual promiscuity are badges of honor for our celebrities.
Vulgar taunts and attempts at personal humiliation are replacing any discussion of issues and problems of government. It isn’t necessary to name those most guilty of such vulgarity. The use of it by any one individual, as we have seen, almost inevitably attracts others to the same low level of communication.
Those of us – granted, sometimes hypocritically – who protest this dissent into the depths of the worst of styles are called prudish, outdated or simply not a part of the current scene – “not with it!”. But it is time to blow a whistle and call a halt to what is demeaning not only to public discussion but which too often substitutes for real logical discussion and a measured discussion of the conflict of ideas.
It is hard to now how to call a halt to this trend.
The old guardians of propriety – pastors, priests and rabbis – seem to have lost their once vast influence on public life. That perhaps comes with a growing secularization of American life in which religion and those who practice it appear to be a smaller and smaller part of the population. But it also comes from a misconstrued understanding of what liberty and freedom, the hallmarks of American life and our democracy, mean.
The one place left for setting an example and calling a halt to the debasement of the public discourse is, of course, through our elected leaders. The president of the United States has always had at least three different roles – that of chief executor who administers and polices the law, that of politician who heads — at least temporarily –the majority opinion as expressed by voters, and another, hard to define, role as the symbol of the nation and its aspirations.
We are now deep in the process of selecting the next person who will hold that high office and try to meet all its heavy requirements. The contest this year is unusually complex since on the one side we have a veteran of many political wars with all the baggage that necessarily entails and on the other a bitter rivalry among a number of contestants fighting for their party’s nomination The sheer volume of discourse provides, alas!, an opportunity for infringement of the standards which we would uphold for an educated discourse.
But it might be important if, at this very moment, we turn out attention to the style and courtesy of the debate. We would not eschew, of course, a discussion of the major issues. Indeed, that is most necessary.
But we would also like to see one or more of the candidates turn his back on the vulgarity which has recently characterized this discourse. Prim and proper as it might seem, how about a candidate who makes it clear that he will rise about the kind of exchanges we have recently had, and return to more formal and discreet discussion for the highest office in the land. Let’s make it known that that too, proper behavior, is going to be rewarded in this political contest.