In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting last weekend we’ve seen an outpouring of support and solidarity for the victims. Strangely, I find this almost as depressing as the event itself.
Where was all this sympathy, this solidarity, when our poltitics, our media, and our social discourse were being hijacked by the Pat Robertsons, the Donald Trumps, the Tom Cottons, the Bill O’Reillys? We have created a society where attacks like this are not just tolerated but encouraged, every single day, and millions of people sit in front of blaring televisions and nod and thump the arm of the La-Z-Boy and mutter “Damn straight! You tell it!”.
Or worse, they sit in mute disgust and do absolutely nothing.
Rhetoric that is racist or homophobic, xenophobic or anti-intellectual or sexist, has become more and more the norm of late. Millions of Americans rail against the strictures of “political correctness” that discourage them from publicly expressing just the kind of hatred that prompted the most recent incident. Donald Trump is praised for “saying what he thinks”, even when what he thinks is brutalizing and dehumanizing to many of us; negative reaction to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges (legalizing same-sex marriage) was virulent — calls for violent action against gays were widespread in conservative media; Arkansas’ Tom Cotton is viewed as a potential 2020 Republican presidential candidate not in spite of his hateful comments about millions of people with whom he reluctantly shares the planet, but because of them.
I was born and raised in the ultra-conservative rural South. We saw enemies everywhere: the Catholics (“idolators”), the Jews (“Jesus-killers”), MLK (“rabble-rouser”), peace activists (“yellow-bellied traitors”), and so on. In all that fear and mistrust, however, a phrase that we heard over and over was “You just don’t say things like that!” Our beliefs, our prejudices, wrong or right, were sacred, but even more sacred was the obligation to be polite. We were taught to hate, yes, but we were also taught that civility mattered. Today we’ve kept the hate, but lost the instinct for simple courtesy, and an essential restraint has been removed from our behavior toward our fellow man.
Politicians and pundits have rushed to express their shock and dismay at this latest outrage — even those who had advocated, directly or indirectly, just the type of aggression that Omar Mateen carried out in that Orlando nightclub — but we all know that tomorrow, or the next day, they will have moved smoothly back into their old tracks, railing against the vile homosexuals (or Jews, or blacks, or Muslims, or working poor, or disabled, or Mexicans — there is never a shortage of people to hate) and encouraging, sometimes overtly, sometimes through innuendo and implication (“transsexuals in the bathrooms at Target! Grab your guns!”) the next Pulse massacre, or Matthew Shepard murder, or 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, or Kristallnacht.
Free speech is enshrined in our system of laws, protected by the document on which our entire social structure is based. Unfortunately, there are aspects to this right that the Founding Fathers took for granted, such as civility, politeness, respect — simple, basic, common courtesy. As we’ve seen, they were wrong to assume that their descendants would carry those traits forward. Instead, we’ve come to value sheer noise over thoughtful discourse. We’ve replaced Jefferson and Madison with Rambo and Dirty Harry, Abraham Lincoln with Ted Cruz.
There may well have been people I knew in that club Saturday night. The next incident could engulf friends, relatives; I, myself, might one day become a victim. I’m sure we could think of any number of reasons why I, or people like me, should be hated or feared. We can talk about it, and maybe I can do something to ease your apprehensions, or you can go get your gun. I can’t decide for you.
Your move, America.