Civility is so passé nowadays. You can say anything about anyone using any language, and few people even bat an eye.
“This woman is mentally ill,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently in reference to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her insistence that legislators continue to wear masks in the House Chamber.
“You know,” added Greene, “we can look back in a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star, and they were definitely treated like second-class citizens – so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany and this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”
That’s right: Greene compared a requirement to wear a mask in the halls of Congress to the Nazis’ systematic murder of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews.
Greene received the obligatory rebukes from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who noted that “he does not agree with these comments and condemns these comparisons to the Holocaust.” But no further consequences were proposed by either GOP leader.
So, Greene simply goes about her business, which these days means traveling the country to host “America First” rallies.
Lest Connecticut citizens think such patently cruel and callous behavior is limited to people from elsewhere, look no further than the town of Portland.
A group of protesters met outside Brownstone Intermediate School on May 23 to criticize the school district’s student-mask policy. The group advertised their message on a sign that can charitably be described as “insensitive.”
“The antisemitic sign appeared to have images of Schools Superintendent Charles Britton and Board of Education Chairwoman Sharon Peters, edited to make them look like Adolf Hitler,” reported the Middletown Press. “Below the photos were caricatures of masked children. Fashioned to the sign were an American flag and a Trump flag.”
The sign drew fitting reactions from public officials like Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, and Portland First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield, who said, “It is abhorrent and I strongly condemn it.”
In today’s hyper-polarized environment, however, such words of condemnation not only ring hollow among provocateurs such as Greene; they actually add fuel to these instigators’ detestable actions.
“Stepping over the line is the whole point of [Greene’s] political career, and what, at this precarious moment in a sharply divided America, gives it strength,” explains journalist David Knowles.
“For instance,” adds Knowles, “at [the May 21] rally in Mesa, Ariz., which she held with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Greene delighted her audience by recounting how she had received two fines on a single day last week for not wearing a mask on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
Make a blatantly offensive statement. Get criticized. Double down. Proceed with the next offensive statement. Sound familiar?
It’s right out of the Donald Trump Playbook, a strategy I originally thought too tone-deaf to succeed in modern politics. Boy, was I ever wrong.
Such is the state of politics – and American life, in general – in 2021: People take sides, dig in their heels, and fight for their “tribe,” regardless of the facts. Even as their actions are especially egregious, it’s not just Marjorie Taylor Greene or Donald Trump; incivility is now bipartisan behavior.
Call me old-fashioned, but I grew up in a world guided by the classic motherly maxim, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That advice applied particularly to elected officials whose political careers were essentially over the moment they blatantly lied or made bigoted statements.
But times have changed. Blame it on uninhibited social media, a frustrated electorate, or a self-absorbed former president. Fact is, people have become unapologetically mean. That’s why I was heartened to see the Connecticut Senate last week unanimously approve SB 989, which expands protections against online stalking and harassment.
I was equally pleased to see the Christian Science Monitor dedicate a recent series to respect.
“Respect can be a difficult word, often used as a tool to protect inequity or injustice,” explains the Monitor. “In its deepest meanings, however, it is seen as an essential ingredient in the American experiment. Amid the nation’s political polarization and widening cultural divides are millions of Americans who have lost sight of each other, caught in reflexive rituals and simplistic clichés that dismiss, demonize, or otherwise delegitimize perceived enemies.”
In short, “Respect is one vital way we heal and re-establish common civic ideals.”
Given the current climate, I’m not expecting a return to widespread civility anytime soon. But the essential point remains: This American experiment will never move forward unless we regain some semblance of mutual respect.
Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and in his 15th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Email Barth here.
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