10/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mockery in the Public Discourse: Another Problem with Sarah Palin

Here's a magazine cover I'd like to see: a simple shot of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin giving her acceptance speech to the cheering convention delegates. Superimposed over the photo are headshots of media pundits with their swooning sound bytes, atop a caption that reads: What's wrong with this picture?

Ever since Palin's convention speech last week, some in the media, as well as alarmed voters forwarding fact-checking e-mails, have been addressing the flaws in her candidacy, the vetting process, and aspects of her convention speech, e.g., the out-and-out lies and mocking tone. Yet both pundits and "the people" still frequently preface their remarks by complimenting her speaking skills and asserting that she gave a "great speech." As Palin continues her speaking tactics on the stump, I am prompted to raise an issue which, in my view, is so detrimental to our society that we must begin to address it.

In a nutshell, we are a society that has come to consider mockery an acceptable form of public discourse. As long as we're not the butt of it, we accept it as humorous and clever, and so a legitimate form of human interaction. Whether it's on a late-night comedy show, in a popular movie, or part of a political campaign, this form of public degradation is seen as "normal," "standard practice," and even natural or essential human behavior. We don't care if a speaker's words are vicious or denigrating, or even true -- as long as they're uttered with a smile and a joke line. As a society we have come to believe that "a pit bull with lipstick" is something to be lauded and admired.

This is a problem that seems, of late, to especially plague the Republican Party -- whose entire line-up of convention speakers relied heavily on mocking their opponents. Particularly startling was the Republican mockery of Obama's role as a community organizer -- and, by extension, the people whose lives were changed by his efforts. (Community organizing, of course, has been the foundation of the major movements for change in this country, including the feminist movement from which Sarah Palin was benefiting as she spoke.)

Of course, this practice of mocking people with whom one disagrees is not limited to Republicans. Both the liberal and conservative blogospheres, for example, suffer mightily from the same disease. Readers of blogs often mock the blogger, writers of follow-up comments, or an opposing candidate or political party. When Timothy Shriver posted a blog advocating a boycott of the movie Tropic Thunder, on the grounds that its portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities had the effect of mocking, and therefore harming, people who already endure significant societal abuse, numerous commenters responded by defending mockery. One even suggested that humor, to be good, must be mean--which, of course, is simply not true. (A two-year-old I know recently made up his own joke; it was intelligent, spontaneous, and funny--and completely devoid of meanness.) Some confused satire with mockery. (Satire illuminates a societal problem; mockery belittles others.)

Many people think that all of this doesn't matter. But as mockery has grown increasingly acceptable in the public discourse, children and teenagers have also come to accept it as normal, and the consequences have sometimes been tragic. We've seen suicides by teens who were cruelly mocked and humiliated on Internet forums. We've seen school shootings, almost of all of which have been committed by young people who have been severely bullied, a.k.a. mocked. (Mocking is a form of bullying, a way of asserting superiority by denigrating or humiliating another.)

We also see its consequences in the devolution of public and private discourse. Mockery, by its nature, keeps conversation at surface levels, ensuring that no change in either listener or speaker will occur as a result of the interaction, little depth of insight will emerge, and no deeper sense of intimacy will be gained. By belittling others, mockery erects a psychological barrier that automatically divides, not unifies.

As mockery grows increasingly commonplace, we need to start drawing connections. If we ourselves are not modeling a more respectful way of treating others--and demanding the same of figures in the public eye--aren't we contributing to a culture that accepts demeaning others as


When a party's convention speakers and candidates' campaigns use mockery as a weapon to make supporters feel superior to others and we fail to denounce it--when we accept mockery as "just politics" or "business as usual" -- what are we teaching our children? And what are we doing to ourselves?

I suggest that it is time to ask: What are we personally doing to make mocking others unacceptable? What are we doing to create a culture of dignity?

For starters, we can tell the truth: Sarah Palin's convention address was not a "great speech." It may have been clever, but it was not wise. It may have been delivered with poise, good timing, and confidence, but it was not respectful or insightful, visionary or principled, eloquent or uplifting, or grounded in practical solutions to the pressing problems of our time.

What's wrong with this picture? And what kind of picture will we choose to create instead?

Pamela Gerloff is co-author, with Robert W. Fuller, of Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008).