Here is what has been said the past week or so that sparked argument: Bill Maher, on HBO, said a lot of lives would be saved if Vice President Cheney had died, and Ann Coulter, at a conservative political meeting, suggested John Edwards is a “faggot.”
She was trying to be funny and get a laugh. He was trying to startle and get applause.
What followed was the predictable kabuki in which politically active groups and individuals feigned dismay as opposed to what many of them really felt, which was grim delight. Conservatives said they were chilled by Mr. Maher’s comments, but I don’t think they were. They were delighted he revealed what they believe is at the heart of modern liberalism, which is hate.
Liberals amused themselves making believe they were chilled by Ms. Coulter’s remarks, but they were not. They were delighted she has revealed what they believe is at the heart of modern conservatism, which is hate.
The truth is many liberals were dismayed by Mr. Maher because he made them look bad, and many conservatives were mad at Ms. Coulter for the same reason.
I realized as I watched it all play out that there’s a kind of simple way to know whether something you just heard is something that should not have been said. It is: Did it make you wince? When the Winceometer is triggered, it’s an excellent indication that what you just heard is unfortunate and ought not to be repeated.
In both cases, Mr. Maher and Ms. Coulter, when I heard them, I winced. Did you? I thought so. In modern life we wince a lot. It’s not the worst thing, but it’s better when something makes you smile.
* * *
One of the clearest statements ever about the implied limits of legitimate political discourse was made by the imprisoned Socrates in his first dialogue with Crito, when he said, “That’s not nice.” Actually, it was your grandmother who said “That’s not nice.” She’s the one who probably taught you the wince. It is her wisdom, encapsulated in those three simple words, that is missing from the current debate.
We tie ourselves in knots trying to explain why it is, or why it isn’t, always or occasionally, helpful or destructive to use various epithets, or give full voice to our resentments. But the simple wisdom of Grandma—“That’s not nice”—is a good guide. (I should say that when I was a kid, grandmas were older people who had common sense. They had observed something of people, had experienced life directly, not only through books or TV. Almost all of them had religious faith, and had absorbed the teachings of the Bible. Almost all of them sat quietly at the kitchen table, and even when I was a kid they were considered old fashioned. They were often ethnic and had accents. As a matter of fact, all of them were.)
I think that as America has grown more academic or aware of education, the wisdom of Grandma has been denigrated. Or ignored. Or stolen and dressed up as something else. For instance, Rudy Giuliani’s success in cleaning up and reviving the city of New York is generally attributed to his embrace of what is called, in academic circles, the broken-window theory. It holds that when criminals see that even small infractions are met and punished, they will understand that larger infractions will be met and punished. It also holds that when neighborhoods deteriorate, criminals are emboldened. People from Harvard won great prizes for these insights.
But all of broken-windows theory comes down to what Grandma always knew and said: “Fix the window or they’ll think no one cares! When people think no one cares, they do whatever they want.” There was not a single grandmother in America circa 1750-2007 who didn’t know this. But no one wants to quote Grandma. She’s so yesterday. And her simple teachings have been superseded by more exotic forms of instruction.
* * *
Fifty years ago, no one speaking at a respected political gathering would say, would even think of saying that Adlai Stevenson is a faggot. Nor would Arthur Godfrey or Jack Paar have declared on their television shows that we’d be better off if Eisenhower died. Is our discourse deteriorating? Yes, it is.
Part of the reason is that Grandma had more sway in the public sphere 50 years ago, which is to say common sense and a sense of decorum had more sway. Another part is that privately people felt they had more room to think or say whatever they wanted without being shamed or shunned. It let the steam out. We think of the 1950s as buttoned up, but in a way America had more give then. Men were understood not to be angels.
Our country now puts less of an emphasis on public decorum, courtliness, self-discipline, decency. America no longer says, “That’s not nice.” It doesn’t want to make value judgments on “good” and “bad.” We have come to rely on censorship to maintain decorum. We are very good at letting people know that if they say something we don’t like, we’ll shame them and shun them, even ruin them.
But censorship doesn’t make people improve themselves; it makes people want to rebel. It tells them to toe the line or pay a price. People who are urged in the right direction and taught in the right direction will usually try to discipline and improve themselves from within. But they do not enjoy censorship from without. They fight back. They are rude in order to show they are unbroken.
This is human. And Grandma would have understood this, too.
* * *
I think the atmosphere of political correctness is now experienced by normal people—not people who speak on TV, but normal people—as so oppressive, so demanding of constant self-policing, that when someone says something in public that is truly not nice, not nice at all, they can’t help but feel that they are witnessing a prison break.
As long as political correctness reigns, the more antic among us will try to break out with great streams of Tourette’s-like forbidden words and ideas.
We should forbid less and demand more. We should exert less pressure from without and encourage more discipline from within. We should ask people to be dignified, hope they’ll be generous, expect them to be fair. When they’re not, we should correct them. But we shouldn’t beat them to a pulp. Because that’s not nice.