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Monday, October 05, 2009


Many thanks to Dan and the gang for having me back.  I'm looking forward to a fun month.

Like many, I have been appalled by the lack of respect demonstrated toward President Obama by some (including these two).  It may be, as some allege, that a degree of the incivility is due to racism, but I am not entering that discussion; the impropriety is plain simply from the fact that there is some feeling that it is socially or culturally acceptable for those with a pulpit, so to speak, to be openly and unproductively hostile toward the President (and his family).  Hurling utterly disrespectful vitriol at leaders isn’t exactly new (Clinton springs to my mind, and I’m sure others have memories that are significantly more expansive), yet it seems worse to me now than it was even with Clinton—more directed, more ubiquitous, more tolerated.

The occurrence is not only in the States, of course.  In fact, this blawg post was spurred by (my astonishment at) a recent tidbit about a press conference with Gordon Brown, in which he was asked if he takes medication for depression.  Whether a citizenry should be on notice about its leader’s health to that extent is perhaps debatable, but this question was based solely upon an Internet ‘find’—one blogger’s ruminations, labeled as news.

How did we get here?  Why is this acceptable (to the point where such actions are defended)?  My initial thought was the pervasiveness of the media, both online and broadcasted.  Various media outlets (including private bloggers) compete for news and information, for readership.  With 24 hours to fill, broadcast media give air time to angry citizens who might otherwise have been ignored or seen fleetingly at best (see: the Birthers); that sheen of legitimacy, however slight, is picked up by others in the media and by some politicians, then used, if not as a template then as a justification, for lashing out.  But there seems to be something more in the acceptance of the behavior, particularly in the personal nature of some of the attacks and inquiries.  With respect to our leaders, the discretion, the propriety, has been lost—or at least severely diminished.  This could be because our society is moving in the same direction generally—that what was once protected by notions of discretion, privacy and ‘personal space’ is now perfectly acceptable fodder for public viewing (or feasting).   Numerous articles have lamented our collective loss of decorum to social networking.   Perhaps our willingness to reveal all, to expect all, via Tweeting and status-posting and sharing publically photographs best saved for an album only in one’s mind, has turned us into a society that refuses to recognize boundaries, even in once-hallowed halls.  And while this may seem generational, remember-- it’s not the young ones who are obsessed with Twitter.        

So:  what constitutes permissible behavior by the media and/or by politicians toward a nation's leader(s)?  Is it appropriate to levy personal attacks, to abandon good manners, to make inquiries into deeply personal matters?  And if the answer to these is ‘yes,’ has it always been this way, or has our recent shift in ways of communicating/interacting made it so?

Posted by Nadine Farid on October 5, 2009 at 01:20 PM in Culture | Permalink


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Steve wrote, "words can start wars."

Or sometimes just the letter w.

(Sorry, couldn't help myself. And no, that wasn't any sort of political pun, though if you think that was particularly clever of me, I'll take it.)

Posted by: Mark D. White | Oct 6, 2009 9:33:06 AM

With all due respect, where have you been the last 25 or so years? At the very least, please recall the slanders heaped on Robert Bork from the floor of the US Senate.

As far as the new technology goes, history tells us of (1) President Geo. Washington being viciously attacked in newspapers of the day. (2) Congressmen were physically attacking each other in the very halls of Congress itself in the long run up to the War Between the States.

So, to try and blame any current incivility on technology is very shallow thinking at best.

I will presume (for the moment) that you are truly concerned with what you see as a "high level" (my words for it) of incivility. However, I respectfully suggest that you first make certain of your goals, and then how to pursue those goals, before you try to "break up the fight".

Many of the people involved believe they are pursuing worthy or even noble goals. Therefore, to offer a casual or shallow opinion can appear to belittle the participants. Whereupon, some will take offense and respond. Soon, you find yourself as yet another participant in the "incivilty".

Take a care. Words can start wars.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 6, 2009 5:02:52 AM

"At the moment, I do not recall instances of similarly inappropriate actions or statements by members of Congress at the time [Bush was president], but I'm happy to be corrected."

Since you asked, one of my favorite instances of "inappropriateness" was when a member of Congress, in the same interview, claimed that the sitting United States president (1) masterminded a nationwide voter-fraud scheme, and (2) intentionally permitted a terrorist attack to occur, knowing of the plot before-hand, so that he and his "cronies" could "profit."


Posted by: Aaron | Oct 5, 2009 9:21:57 PM

Perhaps your own recollection explains the very phenomenon you've described: most individuals only care about "civility" when the criticized president is someone they favor. When the president is someone they disfavor, uncivil remarks are, at best, unnoticed and forgotten. Thus, at any point in time, roughly half of the population really doesn't mind a lot of disrespect toward the president.

Posted by: Alyssa | Oct 5, 2009 7:33:44 PM

Thank you for the feedback. To clarify, my use of Clinton and not George W. Bush was not meant to signal any sort of refusal to acknowledge the impertinence aimed at the latter during his tenure. I found comments by some media members questioning his intelligence, for example, to be as distasteful and as useless as the current rhetoric I mentioned. At the moment, I do not recall instances of similarly inappropriate actions or statements by members of Congress at the time, but I'm happy to be corrected. If they exist, they (unfortunately) only further my point re: the socially/culturally accepted level of disrespect. Irrespective of the political party of the President, the question still stands as to whether, in our open, 24/7 society, we are more tolerant of such actions, particularly from the media and from other politicians; and if so, why--whether it has anything to do with how we communicate now.

Posted by: nmf | Oct 5, 2009 2:57:55 PM

The final three paragraphs of this post raise an interesting point (for Abadaba--I think by permissible behavior the author means 'socially acceptable', not legally acceptable. I don't think she is advocating the force of government be used to stifle this behavior).

However, the first paragraph is unnecessary, and as Abadaba points out, does thoroughly ignore the open hostility towards Bush from the other side of the political aisle (Bush=Hitler signs and imagery were far more prevalent than Obama-Nazi comparisons, from my anecdotal experience). It's a fair question to wonder if we're becoming less civil towards our leaders. It's intellectually dishonest to conveniently leave out a prime example (going back to Clinton for an example, but skipping over Bush? Really?)

Posted by: anon | Oct 5, 2009 2:05:07 PM

I'm not sure whether expressions of concern about our lack of civility are a sign that we are less civil than before, or or actually more civil than before. In a society that has really given up on civility, no one would lament our lack of civility. In contrast, if we really did think civility was very important, I would expect to see a lot of complaints that we do not sufficiently value civility.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 5, 2009 1:39:45 PM

I think it is quite funny how liberals suddently remember the importance of respecting the president now that there is a Democrat in the White House -- conveniently forgetting the manifest lack of respect shown to President Obama's predecessor. People in glass houses, you know....

The views expressed in this post are also profoundly ahistorical. I would think a law professor would be aware of the vituperative epithets hurled at prominent politicians (including presidents) during the 19th Century -- e.g., allegations of illegitimate children, etc.

As to the scope of "permissible behavior" -- that is quite a question. Is the First Amendment now superfluous?

Posted by: Abadaba | Oct 5, 2009 1:39:39 PM

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