Friday, April 20, 2007

The lost art of civility

My column for last week, (april 12), addressed the Don Imus firing from the point of view of the collapse of civility in our discourse, as illustrated by Don Imus. Nowhere is this more obvious than the blogosphere, where good conservative bloggers who spoke to the issues have all given up and retired, to be replaced by cheap muckrakers looking for quick kills for hit counts.

Anyway, my column "The lost art of civility":

"A week of 'I can't believe you just said that'." That's how writer Robyn Disney of the Macon Telegraph described offensive comments muttered by radio host Don Imus about the Rutgers women's basketball team last week after their loss to the Tennessee Volunteers in the NCAA finals.

Imus created a stir on his morning radio/TV show with derogatory banter about the team. He started by saying "That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos." He later called the Rutgers women "nappy-headed hos." Critics want Imus fired for his statements. He has been suspended for two weeks, but that may not be the end of his punishment.

Imus says worse things every day on his show. But there was something different about this attack. It wasn't the racial slurs, as offensive as that was. See, Imus generally attacks politicians and public figures, people in the spotlight who are used to the incivility that accompanies being "famous."

But this time, his target was not a controversial national figure, or some publicity hound that might be deserving of a smackdown. Instead, he attacked a team of women who did nothing but excel at their sport, earning the right to represent their school in a championship game. They deserved admiration and respect for their accomplishments. Imus instead insulted them for a cheap laugh.

Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers coach, said it best in a Tuesday news conference. "These young ladies before you are valedictorians, future doctors, musical prodigies … (they) are the best this nation has to offer ... They are young ladies of class, distinction. They are articulate. They are gifted." She called Imus' comments "deplorable, despicable, abominable and unconscionable."
We should not be surprised by his comments. Once we accept personal attacks on public figures, it's a small matter for incivility to spread to any person unfortunate enough to gain the attention of one of these purveyors of insult.

Why should any person be the target of public personal insult? Why for example is it acceptable to trash Britney Spears for her lack of parenting skills? We used to be ashamed to gossip if the object of our uncivil language heard us, but now we are more likely to shout louder to be sure we are heard.

I don't care if Imus is suspended or fired or made to walk the plank. His offense was not against me. His offense was against the dozen or so players on the Rutgers team, and they are the ones who have standing to demand apology, retribution, or compensation.

At the press conference, one player said "all of our accomplishments were lost, our moment was taken away" by the remarks. She shouldn't feel that way. Self-esteem comes from within, and you should not give others power over you by their words. The players know what they accomplished.

But frankly, the harm wasn't just in his words, but in the media coverage that followed. Nobody was asking these women's opinions about anything when they were "just" ball players. But after Imus made his comments, everybody wanted to know how they "felt" about it, giving his words power and demeaning the team's real accomplishments.

That's part of what drives our public incivility -- the attention it brings from the media. We are desensitized to bad-mouthing because it's "news." Nobody cares if someone says something nice, but if someone attacks, that's news.

A columnist recently complained about being subjected to a cell-phone conversation on a plane where the participant loudly used the "f-word." He wondered why a person would feel comfortable shouting such language in a public place, but more so why every other person on the plane seemed resigned to accept it. Maybe it's time we responded to incivility with righteous moral outrage.

We can't stop the incivility unless we act against it. We need to turn off the demeaning shows and write the newspapers and TV stations that we are tired of people saying bad things about others. We need to raise the level of public discourse beyond name-calling and onto substantive issues. We need to call out the perpetrators of incivility in a polite but firm way. We need to reclaim our public space for civility.

I wish I could remember what columnist wrote the story about the f-word passenger on the plane. He said some good things about civility that I'd love to post here.

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