Friday, March 09, 2007

Civility and Censorship

Peggy Noonan has a simple, yet profound, essay on the recent flaps created by unseemly remarks by Bill Maher and Ann Coulter that merits reading. At its climax, she writes this:

Fifty years ago, no one speaking at a respected political gathering would say, would even think of saying that Adlai Stevenson is a faggot. Nor would Arthur Godfrey or Jack Paar have declared on their television shows that we'd be better off if Eisenhower died. Is our discourse deteriorating? Yes, it is.

Part of the reason is that Grandma had more sway in the public sphere 50 years ago, which is to say common sense and a sense of decorum had more sway. Another part is that privately people felt they had more room to think or say whatever they wanted without being shamed or shunned. It let the steam out. We think of the 1950s as buttoned up, but in a way America had more give then. Men were understood not to be angels.

Our country now puts less of an emphasis on public decorum, courtliness, self-discipline, decency. America no longer says, "That's not nice." It doesn't want to make value judgments on "good" and "bad." We have come to rely on censorship to maintain decorum. We are very good at letting people know that if they say something we don't like, we'll shame them and shun them, even ruin them.

But censorship doesn't make people improve themselves; it makes people want to rebel. It tells them to toe the line or pay a price. People who are urged in the right direction and taught in the right direction will usually try to discipline and improve themselves from within. But they do not enjoy censorship from without. They fight back. They are rude in order to show they are unbroken.


Read the rest here.

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