Steven Petrow writes the Civilities column for The Post and is the host of “The Civilist” podcast produced by PRI and WUNC.
I tried to keep track of how often Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) interrupted Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) during last Monday’s vice-presidential debate, but I couldn’t keep up. Fortunately, ABC News provided the final tally: Kaine racked up 70 interruptions to Pence’s 40. It was a fitting bookend to the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in which the GOP candidate cut off his Democratic rival 51 times to her 17, Vox reported. Nearly 180 examples of what I call “candidatus interruptus” add up to one sad fact: We the people have lost the art of discourse.
I sense this loss everywhere, every day, in my role as arbiter of good behavior. So I wondered, are we quantifiably interrupting more than before? Are men more likely to let loose with their crossfire than women? Is social media to blame — yet again — for the decline and fall of our civilization?
Writer Sarah Frostenson helped with the first question by revisiting the first presidential debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012. As Frostenson reported in Vox, Obama stepped on Romney’s answers seven times to Romney’s four. Yes, the Kaine-Pence debate was an astounding 10 times worse on the interruption scale. On the qualitative side, both Obama and Romney displayed a much higher level of civility as measured by their vocabulary, body language and overall demeanor than did Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Kaine).
Whether we admit or not, we take many of our behavioral cues these days from the terrible role models on our screens, handheld and otherwise — especially when it comes to interrupting and its first cousin, listening. This is the result of decades’ worth of brawling daytime talk shows, now exponentially amplified by social media. Last year I watched two co-hosts of “The View” — Kelly Osbourne and Rosie Perez — in a shouting match that hastened Perez’s previously announced exit from the show. Good TV perhaps. Enviable role models, no way. (Although let me be clear: Osbourne’s racially charged comments are a much greater violation of the ancient code of Emily Post than a shouting match.)
Personally, I’m astounded by those who jump in over me as I’m telling a story, to tell me theirs. Or if I’m arguing a political point, to cut me off and give me theirs before I’ve made mine. I want to know: Is it too much to ask that you listen first and formulate a well-reasoned (rather than knee-jerk) response? As Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” told me recently, it’s important to reveal how you got to what you’re saying, which comes from talk — meaning real talk, the back-and-forth kind. This, she rightfully says, is where “empathy and intimacy” are born. Talk, as Turkle describes it, “is not happening on the political stage, nor in our personal lives.” Amen, Sherry Turkle.
This year’s political discourse is even more complicated by gender, as evidenced by Clinton’s pathbreaking nomination. After watching the first presidential debate, journalist Katie Hawkins-Gaar coined a phrase to describe Trump’s constant interruptions — “manterrupting.” Meanwhile, that same night, novelist Laila Lalami tweeted: “There is no working woman in America who doesn’t recognize the pattern of interruption that Trump is using against Clinton.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. George H.W. Bush learned his lesson after he was pummeled in the press for his patronizing tone in the 1984 vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro. In 2008, the former president told then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) before his matchup with then-Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska): “You’ve got to be very careful, and you’ve got to be sure you don’t seem overbearing and rude.” Biden took his advice, and as Emile Kossen wrote in “Joe being Sarah, Sarah being Joe: Gendered Adaptiveness in the 2008 Vice-Presidential Debate”: “There were no aggressive rebuttals or interruptions during the debate.” Trump, perhaps not surprisingly, took us back to last-century mores.
Can we blame this uncivil trend on the Internet? Can we point the finger at social media, where flaming and unfriending are the rule? No one can interrupt us online, so we’re full of fire and ire in our posts and tweets. Why talk or listen when we can just rant? Turkle agrees that the lack of talk “is an example of where the Internet has not been helpful.” But she added quickly, “It’s also not helpful to lay our current problems at the feet of the Internet.”
That’s right: We need to take responsibility for our public conduct and relearn the lost art of discourse. We need to reveal our own thought processes and explain how they help formulate our opinions. Of course, someone needs to listen, and we need to listen in turn. So by all means interrupt me if my house is on fire or my fly is open. Otherwise, please let me finish telling you what I think before you jump in to tell me I’m wrong. I promise I’ll do the same for you. Candidates, how about you?