Civility and The Dodo Bird: a Comparitive Study

civilityOver the past week or so, the call for civility has been louder than ever. I’m not sure if this call will be sustained, nor is it clear if it will be heeded. Sadly, civility is a rare thing these days. I wonder if it’s approaching extinction.

Let’s review:

1. A deranged shooter kills 6 people and wounds more, including an Arizona lawmaker. Within 2 hours, the blogosphere is going crazy: One one side, Sarah Palin-haters are drawing a connection between the shooter and the Tea Party icon, based on Palin’s speeches and an unfortunately ill-conceived graphic which featured gun sites on the Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. Bloggers say that Palin’s combative rhetoric and us-vs-them mentality have set the tone.

2. Many folks argue back and say that the bloggers are looking for a connection that doesn’t exist, and they do so because they, in fact, are caught up in us-vs-them mindsets, that they are taking advantage of a tragedy to cast aspersion on a woman they have grown to loathe.

3. Both of the groups in #1 and #2 above point out that each other’s side has spokespersons who engage in vitriol: Beck, O’Reilly, Rush, Coulter on one side, and Dowd, Maher, and Olbermann on the other.

At the same time this is going on:

4.The stories in the days leading up to the NFL playoff game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets focus on the trash-talking, which has reached some new lows, including references to a coach’s sex life with his wife.

5. The publication of a new version of Mark Twain’s classic “Huckleberry Finn” is announced. This one will have all 219 occurrences of the N-word replaced by the less-offensive “slave”.  Modern hateful rhetoric is so pervasive these days that sensitivity regarding inflammatory speech has crossed some lines into the bizarre.

6. My Facebook friend Susan Isaacs alerted me to the Civility Project, which consisted of a simple pledge for political leaders to debate respectfully. Mark DeMoss, a Republican evangelical Christian, asked members of Congress to sign the pledge. Not only was he unsuccessful, he was berated by several conservatives.

7. In many cases, disagreement is not simply disagreement. It’s equated with an emotional failing. If you voted against gay marriage, you clearly hate gay people. If you are against the death penalty, you are a spineless bleeding-heart. Dare to be for Obamacare? You’re clearly a Marxist. Are you an NRA member? Then you are an ignorant redneck.  According to the rules of modern political discourse one cannot simply arrive reasonably and thoughtfully at a position on gay marriage, the new healthcare plan, or other important topics. Disagreement with me on anything is evidence that you have a wire loose.

8. People still watch Jerry Springer, hoping a fight will break out.

While all the above are disturbing and saddening, perhaps that last one holds the key. Maybe the fact that so many of us enjoy, or at least will may attention to, the loudest, most argumentative, and least civil voices out there is the reason that it won’t go away. What will it take to get this situation right again? Change the hearts of the masses of people who give O’Reilly and Maher their massive ratings? How in the world do we change that many hearts?


Do They Really Think That Will Work?

Wendy's Sea Salt

I was watching a football game on TV a few weeks ago, and noticed a new Wendy’s commercial. The basic message is that Wendy’s now uses sea salt on their french fries; the implication is that because it’s more natural, it’s healthy.

It strikes me as an odd message. The reality is that the fries probably aren’t much healthier than they were with whatever other kind of salt was on there. Fries are still potatoes which are soaking in cooking oil (which is 100% fat)  as they cook, correct?  How does the presence of sea salt change that reality?  Presenting these fries as a new, healthful choice is akin to marketing “Schindler’s List” as a comedy.

What strikes me the most, though, is that somewhere at Wendy’s HQ, a person whose job is to know advertising and marketing came up with this idea, in hopes that it will increase sales. Here’s why it won’t:  The barrage of publicity that fast food has received over the past several years has been quite extensive. Everyone knows that french fries are not healthy. Everyone. Yet fast food is still doing quite well as an industry. That leaves us with the indisputable truth that there are two kinds of people in this nation: those who care about their health enough to avoid fast food, and those who like the taste of the stuff more than they care about their health. Since everyone knows the ramifications of eating fries, the fact that so many still purchase them is an indication that they are exercising their right to simply not care.

So if there are two kinds of people: those who care enough about their health to avoid fast food, and those who aren’t bothered enough by it to change their eating habits. Of the former group, nobody is going to be convinced by the new campaign to start buying Wendy’s fries. And the latter group is already buying them. This will result in a net gain of zero increased sales of french fries.

I am no marketing expert, but I’m fairly sure that the purpose of any marketing campaign is to increase sales. I’ve seen dumber marketing efforts, but I’m having a little trouble recalling anything as pointless as this one.

Watching Death Happen

I’ve never been in the same room as a person as they died. Once, as a military policeman, I worked an accident and saw the lifeless expression on a young driver’s face just a few minutes after his carelessness resulted in his early exit from this life. In July 2006, I visited a relative in the hospital, only to find that an hour later he had passed on.

21st-Century Americans tend to be protected from the realities of our mortality, for the most part. While that’s mostly a good thing, it probably puts us in the minority when compared to people in different places or times throughout history. As I write this, I am less than 24 hours removed from watching “True Grit”, which features a public execution near the beginning of the movie. As the criminals are hanged, the crowd–composed of men, women, and children–applauds.  Can you imagine taking a 7-year-old child to an execution today?

The reality, of course, is that people have almost always had a front-row seat to death. But for a short period of time, roughly a hundred years, we’ve been insulated. And when something happened where many people watched a death occur on television, an outcry was the result.

Many of these historical deathly events are now available for public viewing. Thanks to Youtube, you can see hundreds of thousands of Japanese get vaporized, see 67 people die as the Hindenberg explodes, watch JFK get assassinated, or watch his killer die.

But watching someone die via electronic means is not new, and it’s not unique to Youtube. During the Vietnam war, millions watched news footage of a South Vietnamese general shooting a Viet Cong fighter in the head while his hands were tied.

What does this mean? Are we really getting more desensitized to death, as some claim? Are we getting more bloodthirsty? Or are we returning back to where we have been for most of human history, willing to watch as humans pass from this life into the next?  Is it a good or a bad thing to be faced with the harsh reality that this world can be dangerous, and death happens?  Can any of us who have grown up during a “safe” time even able to make an objective assessment of this question?




Censor Now, Pay later

Although 3 decades have passed, I remember it like it was yesterday: I was in the 7th grade at Agnew Middle school, and my English teacher inexplicably chose me to read out loud when we got to the part of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” which contained the N-word.  I was surprised when I saw it, but didn’t have time to think, so I simply read it. Then I laughed. Uncontrollably. I couldn’t even finish the sentence. Other kids looked at me like I was weird. Thankfully, Mrs. Cohn recognized that I could no longer read comfortably, and she quickly asked another student to take up reading where I left off.

I’m not sure why I laughed. I certainly don’t think “N” is a funny word. But my reaction to was the worst case of nervous laughter I have ever experienced before or since.

It turns out I’m not the only person made nervous by the appearance of the N-word in Mark Twain’s classic. In fact, a publisher named New South has decided that the discomfort caused by the presence of that word warrants a radical reaction: they’re going to publish the book without the offending word.  Someone please set the author’s grave on the Spin Cycle when the mangled version of this book is unleashed on the world.

While I understand that “N—-r” is without equal in the way it touches nerves, its removal from “Huckleberry Finn” is a terrible idea. Any published work, especially such a well-known one, needs to stay intact, for at least three reasons: (a) the words belong to the author, period;  (b) the words as written are a reflection of life at the time and place it was written. Finally, (c) the novel is not racist at all. In fact, Twain had a very anti-racist agenda when he wrote it. The black characters are portrayed as more human, more intelligent, and more valuable to others than just about any other fictional black characters up until that time.  In real life, the author was friends with Booker T Washington, and helped fund the education of at least one African-American college student, a feat that hardly raises an eyebrow now, but was very bold at the time. Twain had a purpose in mind when he peppered the story with the N-word, and his purpose was a good one. To remove the word from this story is to remove the meat of the story.

To allow ourselves changes to Twain’s words can only lead to making revisionist history an acceptable idea. Language is ever-evolving. What was an OK word to use a few years ago is not acceptable today.  Let us not fall into the trap of catering to hypersensitive people and neutering the powerful message in a great book in the process.

The book is a snapshot of what it was like at that time, in that place, in history. To change it to fit modern preferences is akin to changing the hairstyle of the Mona Lisa every few years.

We have two choices: leave all published works intact, or change them all freely and continuously. The potential result of the latter is scary and sad.