Within two weeks in September, Americans were cluster-bombed by hate speech and a shock wave of incivility. From politics to music and sports, with the mass media more than willing to devote thousands of column inches and hours of air time to salacious reporting, those shock waves eventually degenerated into mere ripples that have become commonly accepted.
At Fox-inspired teabag parties and the 9/12 demonstration in the nation's capital that drew about 75,000 persons, frustration and a power of helplessness mixed with hate speech. The riled-up Right called those who opposed their views fascists, socialists, Communists, and Nazis. Pictures showed President Obama with a Hitleresque mustache or looking like Chairman Maobama. The mob accused the President of unproven lies, and then added, apparently for good measure, that he wasn't even a true American because he was—pick one or both—a Muslim and/or not even born in the United States. A few signs even called for lynching members of Congress who didn't agree with the Teabagger views.
In a joint session of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out to the President, "You lie!" Republicans around him didn't seem to be shocked at his inappropriate outburst. During the 50-minute address to the nation, the President was subjected to Republican catcalls, one member who wore a sign around his neck asking, "What bill?," and several members who raised papers over their heads during some of the President's statements. Apparently, they didn't think the 161 Republican-proposed amendments already adopted into health care bills weren't enough.
At the U.S. Open, tennis star Serena Williams at the end of a singles match unleashed a profanity-laced diatribe against a line judge.
At the Video Music Awards, rapper Kanye West jumped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift, who had just been declared the winner in the Best Female Video category, and announced that Beyoncé should have won.
Although the teabaggers, Republicans who catcalled and raised papers, and news pundits who had inflamed their conservative base never even thought apologies were necessary, at least Wilson, Williams, and West all said they were sorry.
Wilson, pushed by the Republican leadership, quickly apologized to the President, stating that his comment was "inappropriate and regrettable," and reflected a "lack of civility." He said he was sorry, but he believed what he said was accurate. Wilson also claimed the outburst was spontaneous, although he, like the rest of Congress, had a copy of the speech ahead of time. The next day, he joyously signed photos in the halls of Congress and solicited for, and received, a sudden cash spurt of more than a million dollars in contributions from the ultra-right within a week of his outburst.
Williams, a day after her outburst, said she let her passion and emotion get the better of her, that she was sorry, but still thought the line judge made a bad call. She then teamed with her sister to win the doubles title.
West went on a media blitz to apologize for his behavior, after getting booed and tweeted by a horde of media personalities. He repeatedly said he was sorry, but he still got some "street cred" for his outburst.
Even if their comments were out of character—and there's no evidence they were—they failed to adhere to the basic standards of conduct expected in a civil society.
Apologies won't erase incivility. Those who use the invective of hate and don't apologize can easily be dismissed as unworthy of much consideration in the public arena for rational discussion.
But, Wilson, Williams, and West all knew what they were doing when they did it. And, they all knew they could make these seemingly unscripted outbursts, apologize for them, and expect Americans to accept them. It’s not much different from lawyers who slyly make inappropriate comments in court, get rebuked by a judge, apologize, and yet have made their point with juries.
As a nation, we like to believe we are compassionate and forgive those who apologize and reject the hurt they may have caused—even if it’s only a show for the media. Maybe, instead of allowing half-sincere apologies, we can apologize for our own behavior for allowing crocodile tears to wash our seeming compassion.
The Brasches live in a conservative blue-collar northeast Pennsylvania neighborhood whose residents are appalled at the level of hate speech and uncivil behavior that exists in the country. Walter Brasch's latest books are Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush and 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, available at amazon.com and other bookstores. You may contact the Brasches through www.walterbrasach.com
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This story was published on September 28, 2009.