Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Uncivil War

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina probably feels pretty bad right now.

It is safe to say that his outburst during President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, will go down infamy, and the ignominy of that moment will dog him now and for the rest of his life.

As it should.

When the President of the United States petitions Congress for the right to address both houses, it is usually a serious event: the State of the Union address, a declaration of war, or the announcement of a wide and sweeping change in national policy. The President does not do this lightly. He seeks audience with the Legislative branch, to make clear what the course of the nation must be. As such, he is accorded the honor of addressing both houses in joint session, and with that, is granted a level of decorum that is unheralded in the usual course of politics in Washington, D.C.

Representative Wilson violated that decorum.

As such, he is to be, rightly, condemned for his impertinence. He has apologized, saying the moment got the better of him, but even so, we expect our elected representatives to carry themselves with honor and with respect at these times. His outburst, live, for all America to see, brings a stain on the honor of South Carolina which it did not need. He represents the people of his district, and no matter what they may think of the President, I am certain they do not think he should be treated in such a manner.

The opprobrium raised by this moment of indiscretion began almost immediately, surging over the Internet like a nuclear shock wave, raising the ire of people everywhere, not just in South Carolina, or even the United States. But in this tsunami of outrage, was expressed the dark side of human nature, for condemnation was indeed called for, but the quality and tone of the condemnation was in many ways just as disturbing as the event itself. It was also, perhaps, representative of our society's loss of civility and rectitude.

It is one thing to call a person into account for their mistake; personal responsibility must take the day. It is another, for those calling the person into account, to use language that signifies an intemperance or a self-righteousness that smacks of hypocrisy. Condemnation of an obvious wrong is not a license to let forth with obscenity, profanity, or intolerance. Those who stand against the common good, who do not see the world as we do, who have their own beliefs, and are allowed to hold them thanks to the Constitution, will never be swayed by reason, nor will they be swayed by being treated as lunatics.

This moment is one where we can take a long, hard look into our own comportment, those of us who believe we know what is best. While we must stand against willful ignorance, base intolerance, rank prevarication, and the perpetuation of fear, we cannot do so at the risk of becoming the very things we abhor. We cannot treat our opponents like foes to be crushed by the power of our reason or the force of our logic. We cannot treat them as petulant children. We cannot treat them as lost causes. We cannot see them as "the enemy." We must accept that they do not see things as we do, that we may not be able to reason with them, but that they, too, are part of the America we seek to protect. We must give them ample opportunity to engage in civil discourse, and where they will, be reasonable and not dismissive. If they will not engage us so, we can condemn them, but must not excoriate them, as they would us. We must not play their game.

So let us cry foul for what has happened, but let us learn from it as well. It will require that we swallow our pride and hold our tongue. It will be difficult, at times, to tolerate what we clearly see as fear-mongering and hypocrisy, but if we are true to our belief that the greater good must carry the day, then no amount of such demagoguery can hurt us. In the end, we may not sway our opponents, but we may show them that a measured voice carries more weight than shouted words.

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