“Were you born a bigot, or did you, like, grow into it?” D-list comedian Kathy Griffin asked Michele Bachmann recently.
I understand that Griffin is a comedian, and if anyone gets paid to say mean things about people, she does.
But what startled me was how little it differed from the actual comments of most public figures these days — and that afterwards, the Internet gathered ’round to congratulate her without a second thought.
“You told her!” they say. “Good work!”
People have always said mean things about others behind their backs. There is a word for that: conversation.
But now it’s gone up a peg.
If civility in public life is not dead yet, it certainly has waited too long to have that lump checked.
Allen West sends e-mails calling Debbie Wasserman Schultz, among other things, “vile” “despicable” and “not a Lady” — to Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “You lie!” Joe Wilson yells — while the President is speaking. Rick Perry calls Ben Bernanke “almost treasonous” and refuses to apologize.
“Please secede!”crowds yell at Rick Perry as he tours New Hampshire.
We’re in a new age of rudeness.
Things that once were considered rude — belching, wardrobe malfunctioning, telling people how much money you made— are now considered high entertainment. Antics that once got you kicked out of restaurants now get you invited to ribbon-cuttings. Once, when you had a Situation, there were people you could contact to make it go away. Now there are people you can contact to make a Situation host your bar mitzvah.
But more than rude, we live in an age where it’s considered somehow noble to be mean.
You know that things are bad when Tim Pawlenty gets widely panned for failing to repeat to Mitt Romney’s face something unpleasant he had said about Mitt Romney behind his back.
Pawlenty was always out of his depth when it came to the “mean” game — his version of an insult was telling Mitt Romney that he would only mow up to one acre of his lawn.
It’s why he’s out and Rick “Some Dare Call It Treason” Perry is in. The Mean Game is the only game in town.
Jon Huntsman cheerfully tweets that “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
“Crazy!” everyone yells.
He’ll be out next.
What happened to being rude to people behind their backs and pleasant to them when we met them on the street? We’ve somehow arrived at this notion that politeness is a vice akin to hypocrisy. Being rude to people to their faces and boasting about it on the Internet afterward is practically a national hobby.
We all have clearly labeled personal choirs. And we preach to them, unceasingly and stridently. The neat trick of modern life is that if you carry your smartphone with you at all times, you never have to interact with anyone with whom you disagree. Instead, you can type derogatory thoughts about them to the People Who Get It and chortle knowingly to yourself. “Look at this rube,” you say. “Look at this latte-guzzling elitist.”
“You might like them once you get to know them,” everyone’s mother always said. Once this was encouragement to get to know people. Now it’s the opposite.
“I can’t get to know him!” we say. “What if I liked him? Then I wouldn’t be able to send this insulting tweet about him that I stayed up all night to phrase just right.”
This works out well for comedians like Griffin, of course. Caricatures are easy to mock. And people without innards are difficult to wound.
But the same oversimplification that makes easier parodies makes it harder to talk to anyone. If people actually are Monsters with a capital M, then surely you shouldn’t be polite to them! They might rush up and bite you on the ankle.
Agree to disagree? Who’s agreeing to anything! Let’s disagree to disagree!
“Even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness,” Otto von Bismarck once wrote. He’d certainly feel out of place here, but he knew what he was talking about.
We’ve forgotten that the way we treat others is not supposed to reflect on them but on us. That I disagree with your politics is no excuse for me to fling glitter at you or place video online of you eating a corndog in a sensual manner. At least it used not to be.
But these days, we consider rudeness a statement of principle. Being downright mean is heroic.
We are entitled to be mean to people if we have decided that they are wrong. But of course most of us are wrong from time to time, with the exception of stopped clocks twice a day and Jimmy Carter.
It would be so much simpler if people actually were just Bigots with a capital B or just Heroes with a capital H. But everyone is always a complicated concatenation of qualities that tend to be somewhat obscured in the limelight.
But it’s easy to forget that if you never talk to them.
Listen? Time you spend listening is time you have to take off from yelling and thinking of meaner things to yell.
It’s more fun to watch yelling, we insist. But really, how fun was that debt ceiling debate? All it did was make me feel vaguely nostalgic for Jersey Shore, where they know how to do these things right.
Maybe we aren’t naturally this rude.
But these days it’s all about yelling. Huntsman, invariably polite on Twitter, has 18,000 followers. Sarah “Obama lies, economy dies!” Palin has 600,000. It’s hard to yell reasonable things without getting hoarse and muddled by the echo.
We didn’t start off this mean. We, like, grew into it.