Civility


“The one thing….that is truly ugly is this climate of hate and intimidation created by a noisy few, which makes the decent majority reluctant to air in public their views on anything controversial. Where all pretend to be thinking alike, it’s likely that no one is thinking at all.” – Edward Abby

This election has left me feeling raw and despondent. It has opened a lot of old wounds.

I joked at one point that I felt like Election 2016 should come with a trigger warning. The misogyny, the minimization and mansplaining of sexual abuse and assault, the casual and even sometimes well-meaning sexism (“she’s somebody’s mother, sister, daughter, wife” instead of simply “somebody”), the victim-blaming, the vicious character assassinations of the women who’ve come forward to explain that Donald Trump follows through, and the celebration of a unrepentant sexual predator even as an intelligent and competent woman is vilified.

I’m not alone in my dismay. It’s been pretty well documented that the unrelenting toxic stream of misogynistic bilge pumped from the pouting mouth of the world’s creepiest King Baby has recalled for many women some of their most unpleasant experiences. The result has been panic attacks, sudden confessions, crying jags, and angry outbursts – and for many, a furious commitment to see Donald Trump defeated. Not just see him lose, but lose HUGE. Lose BIGLY. A complete rout. And utter and final repudiation of everything he espouses, everything he stands for, everything he represents. It’s the only thing that will satisfy us. This election has been a call to arms.

But I worry…

We have come perilously close to losing our claim to civilization.

I was long ago resigned to the partisan sniping that always occurs but this election feels different. This isn’t about party affiliation. It’s more personal than our ideological differences and seems, in fact, to have largely erased those differences as people cross party lines this time in larger numbers than I can ever recall.

But there is a greater animus, an almost hysterical edge to the rhetoric, and an open anger that I’ve never witnessed before.
I have read and talked with a lot of people lately on the concern over civility, on the lack of conversation possible between those of differing opinions, on the threats (real and implied) in voicing a difference of opinion, and on the bare-faced meanness of this election cycle.
This is not limited to Democrat vs. Republican policy issues and agendas, as it was in the innocent days of party politics. The radicalization of our national politics has meant a move to the extreme on individual emotions as well as party platform positions.

I think it is critically important to recognize that just as Bernie Sanders was a rejection of the status quo on the left, in many ways Donald Trump fills that role for the right. I think the key difference is that Bernie argued FOR something while Donald argued AGAINST, tapping into the deep fear and anger of his supporters. Whether their anger and fear are valid is immaterial; it is what they feel. And unfortunately, for months now it’s been honed on the wetted stone of a heartless con man.

The cognitive dissonance is frightening. Trump encourages his supporters to violence even as he reaffirms their victim status (the crux to making America great “again” is that he will return what was taken from them). He belittles and abuses his enemies, degrades anyone different, yet assures everyone he is a uniter (and he might just be, in the worst way). He is callous, petty and vengeful but claims his strongest asset is a “great temperament.”  He is a vain, ostentatious, thrice-married self-proclaimed adulterer with an overt lack of Christian characteristics yet he has sought and largely claimed support from the evangelical right. He’s a compulsive revisionist who lies without compunction or concern for fact-checkers. He denies saying things that can be proved by video. It hit me today with clarity: Donald Trump is Gaslighting the electorate. His campaign slogan should have been, “Are you going to trust me or your lying eyes.”

And his “fans” don’t care. They adore him. Or maybe they just hate Hillary that much. They’ve been encouraged to do so for decades now. And the conspiracy theories propagated by conservative think tanks and supported by partisan news sites keeps that weary wheel spinning.

The anonymity of social media is part of the meanness. Gasoline on the fire. It’s easier to troll and scream racist or sexist slurs and threaten violence when you don’t have to face people (or any real threat to yourself). Such people are cowards, and cowards flourish in the distance afforded by FaceBook and Twitter (and the meaner denizens of the caves of 4Chan).

This has, of course, become more pronounced as we approach the Presidential election set for Tuesday, November 8th. And it has had a chilling effect on informed discussion and free speech. I’ve felt it. I don’t have a sign in my yard. I seriously worried over poison tossed to the cats and the dog. That is the level of fear over the vitriol in this election.

Yet I recently found a refuge on the very social media that lends itself to anonymous trolling with a FaceBook group called Pantsuit Nation. It started up a little over two weeks ago and now has over 2 million members. It was an invitation-only group of Hillary supporters; a private page for them to share their enthusiasm for HRC and plans to wear pantsuits to vote. It’s not a secret group anymore (you aren’t clandestine if you get covered in the print news) but it has continued to be a place where people feel comfortable sharing their stories on the how and why and when of their vote for Hillary in this election. Some recount their ancestor’s struggles, others speak of their children, or of specific concerns, or deeply held beliefs. They share pictures of themselves sporting pantsuits of varying design (a few military “pantsuits” are displayed) and “I Voted” stickers. They share videos of themselves (or friends or relatives) weeping after casting a vote for the first woman nominated for the presidency. And a recurring theme is their great relief to find this safe space to express themselves.

A recurring theme is their great relief to find this safe space to express themselves. Many have felt both internally and externally stifled by the mean atmosphere of 2016. They write of their hesitation in putting up a Hillary yard sign in their pro-Trump neighborhood; of being accosted in the supermarket parking lot for their bumper sticker; of sneers and jeers and confrontations when they attempt polite political conversation; of FaceBook rants and abuse in response to a pro-Hillary post; of the realization that they can be trolled by some of their relatives and friends.

I think Edward Abby got it a little wrong – particularly as it applies to this period in history. I don’t think silence always equates lack of opinion or thought; I think it suggests instead the degree that fear often muzzles people.

I know many people who’ve suffered verbal abuse and physical threats, who’ve come out their front doors to find vandalism to their property – all because they expressed a political position (Note: this is not limited to supporters of Secretary Clinton; there are Trump supporters who have had their yard signs removed or destroyed).

If we are to be what we claim – celebrate – as a democracy then we must allow for differences: of opinion, ideology, lifestyle, origin, and religion (or lack thereof). That means leaving the yard sign of your neighbor standing and, if you disagree, setting up your own yard sign to that effect. The stifling of political dialogue is the death of democracy. When we attempt to remove someone’s free speech – through intimidation, vandalism, or the threat of violence – we risk our own. Voting is an aspect of free speech. So even if you do it without a yard sign or any outward expression of support for a particular candidate, please make sure you vote. 

 

 

 

 

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