The rise of incivility in this country is a symptom of mass psychopathology. Groups of people see other groups of people behaving badly, and this gives them permission to behave badly themselves. The same thing happens in families. If one child is allowed to throw a tantrum, refuse to pick up his toys, or talk back, the other children watch and imitate. Which doesn't mean that everyone in the family automatically loses control. The key is that boundaries have been crossed, and once that happens, it's hard to go back again. (This accounts in part for why abused children grow up to abuse their own children. They were raised not to recognize the boundary that protects a child from physical or emotional mistreatment.)
The abuse delivered by right-wing Christians is such an old story that we are long past irony. The Rev. Rick Warren has a record for trying to smooth the waters, but he also flirts with intolerance -- toward gay marriage, for instance -- and since his rationale is that a "loving" God shares the same prejudices, what's to stop others with worse tempers from following the same logic? When your God hates, you have permission to hate.
Since Jehovah is an expert hater in the Old Testament, urging his people to countless wars, the greatest attempt to recross that boundary comes in the New Testament, where Jesus preaches love and peace. His success, shall we say, has been limited. Christian violence is as old as the persecution of heretics, which began immediately after Constantine's conversion in 313 A.D. The impulse toward aggression, which is present in everyone, found a way to turn even the Prince of Peace into a hater.
If the story is old and universal, then the rise of incivility in our time displays behavior that cannot be eradicated. At best it is controlled. Sane, civil people have always been the gatekeepers of mature behavior and the teachers of morality. Sometimes their efforts go terribly astray, and the worst in human nature is allowed to have its way (these are the times described by Yeats as when "the center cannot hold"). Barack Obama's behavior comes from the center, and I don't mean just politically. He's a sane, civil adult who knows where his center is. We see our own maturity mirrored in him, but for a long time his predecessor was willful, petulant, arbitrary, and unchecked in his mistakes -- all the marks of serious immaturity, which is especially dangerous in a leader. It breeds not only incivility but wars.
At the same time, reactionary politics is rooted in incivility, having found its first success in the Seventies and Eighties by welcoming bigots, haters, the religious right, and the psychologically damaged to enter the arena of power brokers. The ultra-right fringe had long been excluded, and rightly so, from the central core of either party, being tolerated because a democracy must learn to tolerate the intolerant. Now the intolerant were told that their anger and repression were good things. Pres. Nixon had shown the way with his Southern strategy, a code name for racism, intolerance of hippies, and hatred of the anti-Vietnam movement.
The tactic didn't backfire, which struck a blow to any hope of civility in public discourse afterwards, and once a smooth talker like Ronald Reagan appeared, a shameful policy like allowing AIDS patients to die because, ultimately, they deserved it for their ungodly behavior, could be instituted. The result was that the right-wing base became used to promoting social injustice as a good thing. Fortunately, the outrageousness of Reagan's AIDS indifference led to strong, vocal opposition. Sane, civil adults do keep watch over misbehavior; they have done so during the entire reactionary shift in American politics.
What closed the circle of incivility is that the vociferous intolerance that continues to spew from the religious right and cultural conservatives set a tone that tempted their opponents to scream back. The hectoring left is much smaller than the hectoring right, which has thousands of radio stations at its beck and call, but it feels just as justified. What will stop this vicious circle of name-calling and invective? Not the arrival of a civil President. We already see stories about fringe preachers asking God for Obama's death.
To heal the ills of mass psychology, a shift in consciousness is needed. The problem exists at the level of human aggression. The solution exists at the level of human ideals. There are many ways to remind us of our ideals -- through families, churches, the political pulpit, and by example in public behavior. When more people realize that peace is better than war for everyone, the war of words will begin to end. It's happened before in America's history of inflammatory politics. The sane and civil among us will try to make it happen again.
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