9.16.2009

Civility

My mom was complaining to me last night about Serena Williams' recent outburst and about Joe Wilson yelling "You lie!" at Obama. I sort of shrugged off her complaints as indicative of her incipient old-age.

Today politico.com printed a list of how the members of congress can (and cannot) insult the President. First the can-list (from section 370 of the House Rules and Manual):
  • refer to the government as "something hated, something oppressive"
  • refer to the President as "using legislative or judicial pork"
  • refer to a Presidential message as a "disgrace to the country"
And so on. On the thou-shalt-not list?:
  • call the President a "liar"
  • call the President a "hypocrite"
  • describe the President's veto of a bill as "cowardly"
And so on. What do we think of this? Isn't "liar" a relatively clearly defined term, that may or may not apply at a given moment to any human being? Even partisans will admit that Presidents lie sometimes (think of Clinton initially denying the Lewinsky, or Bush & Iraq). What is a member of Congress to do in such cases? Refrain from speaking?

I guess I can get behind people who would like to see a little common decency return to this country, even if it means some inconveniences to me (like, maybe I need to stop dropping F-bombs so as to not offend women born before 1955). But does America really benefit from banning its own representatives from using certain kinds of political speech?

5 comments:

Wishydig said...

i have no real opinion about what people should or shouldn't say about the president (you know that's true right?) so this is not a political comment nor is it a rebuke of mr wilson:

there is a pretty clear semantic difference between saying "you lied" and "you are a liar." in terms of how much of an implication of character each expresses, i'd say that the former is almost peculiar in it's obvious avoidance of character judgment, and the latter is almost equally marked by focus on character.

'you lie' seems to fall somewhere in between. like i said in my recent post, saying "you drive so slowly" is almost identical to saying "you drive slowly often, and you are driving slowly right now and i'm frustrated about both those facts."

Wishydig said...

(i should have written: "nor is it a rebuke or defense of mr wilson")

Casey said...

Interesting point. I totally read those--not very carefully--as synonymous.

And it would be a little to simple to suggest that, if "you lied" is acceptable, then "you are a liar" must be acceptable... on the grounds that liars are people who have lied.

In other words, lying once does not make you "a liar" in the same way that having sex once does make you not a virgin.

But all that said: I can't decide whether I think the nation is falling apart lately... I'm reading all of these op-eds about basic decency and civility and stuff, and I'm even thinking in academic terms about how a nation can be "united" if it refuses to share the same values, etc. No answers.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Casey (et Wishy)--I don't really have time to dig into this one, nor am I sure what I would say. But I figured I would offer a much more hostile interpretation of Wilson's outburst by Communications scholar Joshua Gunn. The basis of his case is founded on the *fact* (his word, not mine) that Obama wasn't doing anything close to lying during either of Wilson's outbursts. Gunn's work often involves sophisticated Zizekian and Lacanian rhetorical analysis, though I'm not sure if his reading of the Wilson affair isn't over-interpreting. I think you will find it intelligently crafted and worth a read:

The Rosewater Chronicles: Three Reasons Why Joe Wilson is a Racist

Casey said...

The "dark gray font on black background" look of that blog is even less annoying than what it says.

And you, Wrangler: you better be careful how you use the word "sophisticated," or else I'm going to start hearing that as an insult rather than a compliment.

And hey, if the sophists are so despised and unfairly treated throughout history, how did that word come to have such a positive connotation in my mind?