Thursday, November 15, 2012

Temporary (I Hope) Incoherency

There are suddenly many questions at once, and I am not seeing my way to clarity.  Once comments multiply on a post I tend to move it up to the main stage and do a new post.  Or perhaps, as the ruler of my domain, I just want to give my own comments visibility.

The original post that got us rolling was about insult, offense, and fairness. Terri had mentioned some public conservatives who are insulting as examples that the triumphalism of liberals, though unseemly, was not worthy of especial disapproval.  I am no longer familiar with much public commentary, I'm afraid.  Still, I think those leopards may not change their spots that easily, so I will venture comment.

When Limbaugh first came out, I found his style shocking but his arguments reasonable.  He would make an outrageous generalisation, often mocking, but back it up with at least something - a string of quotes by prominent feminists who said much the same as he was claiming, though in words that sounded more acceptable, for example.  Or recordings from the previous evening's news and commentary in which multiple supposedly neutral sources used the same unusual phrasing, which could then be traced back to a DNC press release earlier in the day.  I was impressed. Granted, he was reporting selectively, but he had real stuff to report.

I compared him at the time to political cartoonists, who were, and are, far more unfair.  At a minimum, they don't take calls from opposing viewpoints. they don't have to answer any criticism, in fact.  Why, I asked, were liberals so outraged when it was their ox being gored?  I still think that argument has merit.  Limbaugh changed the game, and brought the political cartooning style to talk radio.  Television comedy had long been allowed that level of unfairness, but it wasn't purporting to be news.  One could see intimations of that on SNL, and before that on Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In with pretend news, but on radio that line was unbreached. Limbaugh also did that briefly in a TV format, with the trappings of news broadcasts, yet making fun of his opposition.  It was considered infuriating and unfair.

Now it is standard.  That is what Stewart and Colbert do, though their comic style and politics are different.  Liberal talk radio has not worked well (last I heard, though Rachel Maddow seems to have persisted), but the premise of having a one-sided, take-n-prisoners political humor show is now established.

Let's look at that shock from the other side.  Even many liberals were stunned when Bill Clinton made fun of sectors of the American people while running for president.  They wondered if there would be backlash.  A few earlier figures like Tip O'Neill had done some of it, and there were certainly suspicions that many presidential candidates had contempt for one or another group of Americans, but you just didn't say that. A president is supposed to represent all Americans, and not ever attack his own.  Reagan would say "our liberal friends" with a little bite and it drew howls of rage - and I tended to agree.  It seemed to me to be technically within the rules but using tones of voice to communicate something different. Adlai Stevenson's campaign was insulting about groups of Americans, but I don't believe he ever was directly. Then Clinton blew that out of the water completely, with he and Hillary openly mocking the culture they were running against.

This continues to the present, with Al Gore talking about the double XX chromosome or Taliban wing Republicans, or Obama talking about people bitterly clinging to guns and religion.  Conservatives just can't get over that a president or potential president just isn't supposed to say that.  Worse things are said by others all the time, arousing less anger.  Something about the context makes it shocking. (Historical note:  Roosevelt did it often in his first two terms but stopped thereafter, so far as I can tell.  Perhaps that emotional content was part of the fury that he was a "traitor to his class.")

There's a host of sociology research to do, and experiments that could be run here.  Do conservatives and liberals, or men and women, or Greatest Generation and Millennials, or black people and white people, have very different context expectations of where and how criticism should be said?

I have become increasingly sympathetic to this idea of context and giving offense, as, for example, my discussion about Peyton Place in Some Rambling About The Printed Word about 10 days ago. There really is a difference between talking about sex in one medium versus another, and I think political offense shows the same pattern.  I was objecting after the election to some offensive, angry comments in what I had expected to be a more social, respectful context.  There were a score of offensive bumper stickers in the parking lot I just shrugged at - that's an expected context. Links from conservative sites to outrageous comments at expected liberal sites I didn't even click through.  I expect HuffPo to be like that.  But newsier sites, even in the Op-Eds, are supposed to hold themselves to higher standards.  Insults can be implied, criticism harsh and even somewhat unfair, but the outpouring of venom is supposed to be kept inside certain bounds.

Wow.  I didn't even get to militarism, saber-rattling, and shows of force.  Perhaps tomorrow.


bs king said...

This may not be entirely related, but it's what sprang to mind upon reading this...

I think my take on much of the offensiveness in political speech today is that it matters not so much who is saying what or about whom, but rather how okay you are with it if they then don't vote for you.

In the post election recaps, I've been more critical of Republican offensiveness, but a large part of that is because they didn't win. I watched some of Fox news in the days after the election, and some of the stuff they were saying about single women was fairly offensive...but when you realized they were only talking about that demographic because they believed the (lack of) single female vote lost them the election, it just felt bizarre. I'm no political strategist, but my guess is almost every demographic responds better to "you're great and hard working and our vision for this country includes lots of people like you" than to criticism.

I guess my rule of thumb would be "if you lost, try toning it down next time".

karrde said...

I'm not up on all the details...

Are Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh equivalent?

I've never listened to Franken, but he did have a reputation for being caustic and abrasive towards supporters of the GOP.

My broader point: if anyone wants to name names, we can go on for quite some time.

The original post about moral superiority seemed to be that the Democratic Party and its friends are comfortable using slander to defame their political opponents. The opponents aren't just wrong, they are evil (or dupes for evil manipulators).

Pointing out that Republicans-and-friends can't claim the title of being morally superior feels like a non sequitur.

If I (or terri) wish to argue that we support a party because the other party is rude/obnoxious, we have to ignore what our own favorite party is doing.

Sam L. said...

Some people like to be offended, and will find offense in most anything. They also are terribly offensive, and just can't see why anyone would be offended by what they say.