Bees in the Mouth

Thursday, January 20, AD 2011

All the recent hubub  about our political rhetoric led me to re-read a book by Peter Wood called A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. It was published in 2006, so at the time Wood focused mainly on the angry political rhetoric of the left.  He didn’t claim that political anger was solely a phenomenon of the left, but most of the examples of heated rhetoric came from left-wing sources. (This, by the way, is where I got that quote from Paul Krugman that I cited last week.)

At any rate, Wood concentrates on what he terms “new anger.”  He acknowledges that there has always been heated political argumentation, but that stylistically much has changed.  People worked hard to suppress anger – witness George Washington’s dedicated attempts to control his quick temper.  Now anger is celebrated.  It has become something of a performance art in our modern society, and we celebrate expressions of righteous anger.   As someone who titles his personal blog (tongue-in-cheekly) the Cranky Conservative, I can see the merits of his argument.

Though Wood makes many decent observations, there are two problems with his book. First of all, I think Wood is entirely too dismissive of the virulent rhetoric of America’s past.  Wood discusses the stylistic differences in how anger was expressed then and now.  It’s certainly true that Jonathan Chait, for example, is not quite the colorful wordsmith of early 19th century poetic barbs, but I’m not sure that the stylistic difference overcomes the substantive similarities.  Writers from America’s early history felt free to write incredibly nasty things about Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other political leaders.  Some of what they wrote would shock modern audiences.  That they did so with some flourish and pizazz hardly signifies that the discourse was much tamer.

I would also submit that the sheer amount of publicly available political rhetoric makes things seem worse today.  Not only is our country some fifty to a hundred times larger than at its founding, technological advances make it easier for the average citizen to be heard.  Once upon a time, people had very few options if they wanted to spout in public.  They would have to find a publisher willing to publish their book or pamphlet, or, failing that, hope that the local penny weekly or daily published their letter to the editor.  Now any person from any social class can be heard instantly thanks to the wonders of the Internet.  There are no “editors” (or very few), and one’s reactions can be published instantly.  Therefore the sheer volume of material is exponentially higher than it was in our past – even our recent past – and thus it is much easier to pull supposedly heated or extreme rhetoric from the pile.

And that brings me to my larger objection.  Some of the examples that Wood cites of supposedly angry rhetoric don’t strike me as all that angry.  This is the central problem with the entire subject.  We keep hearing vague mutterings about the supposedly angry tone of the right.  It is taken as universally true that certain leaders on the right are “full of hate” without so much as an attempt to demonstrate exactly how they are purveyors of hate.  When asked to provide examples of the hate-filled rhetoric of, say, Rush Limbaugh, the typical response is something along the lines of “there are just so many examples I can’t cite one.”  This was brought home just the other day at the end of Rush’s show.  He had a female caller shriek into the phone for several minutes about how furious she was and how much she absolutely hated Rush . And why?   Because he was so full of fury and hate.  Asked to cite examples of Rush’s supposed hate talk, all she managed to do was literally spit into the phone and mutter some more about Rush’s hate-filled rhetoric.

Uh huh.  One person’s hate is another person’s passionate rhetoric.  I really don’t mean this to become a referendum on the Rush Limbaugh show, because I know he’s not everybody’s cup of tea.  I’ve listened to him for 18 years, and I do not recognize the man from his critics’ angry caricatures.  But there certainly are voices on the right, and specifically right-wing radio who I think do nothing but spew.  But again, how do we distinguish between fierce criticism and foaming at the mouth anger?  One would hope that common sense would prevail in such judgments, but it seems like we’ve lost the ability to apply common sense in these situations.  Are Limbaugh’s pointed satirical jabs mean-spirited attacks that “poison our discourse,” or are they entertaining and enlightening ways to highlight the intellectual vacuousness of the left?  I suppose the correct judgment is in the eye of the beholder.

Carl Olson recently wrote a blog post that captures why I am so sick of hearing about the tone of our political rhetoric, as it gets to heart of this subjective difference between anger and pointed criticism.

One of the challenges, of course, is gauging what is actually mean. There is, as Monsignor Pope notes, a certain grey area: “Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear.” Over the years, I’ve found that some folks feel that any sort of strong or critical remark is “mean-spirited” or “harsh” or “nasty”, as if rendering judgment on the logic of an idea or the veracity of an argument were was somehow an outright hate crime. Frankly, I don’t understand such folks, nor can I quite fathom how they make through life without a sense of humor or real friends.

I’ve been chided and chastised more than a few times for strong remarks made on this blog. Once in a while, after considering the complaint, I have apologized for what I’ve said. But I find, more often than not, that the complaint reveals either an inability for a particular reader to cope with a strong but fair criticism, or a failure to actually take seriously the criticism proferred. What is especially interesting (and a bit funny, if frustratingly so), is when someone complains that a post is “mean-spirited” or “nasty” and then goes on for several sentences about what a horrible thinker, person, Catholic, etc., I surely must be. In such a case, it’s apparent that unpardonable sin is failure to feel and emote in exactly the same way as the one complaining/lecturing.

When one complains about the tone of a certain article or blog post, more often than not it really is nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention away from the substantive point.  “Oh sure Hans Kung is a heretic whose ideas should be shunned, but you don’t have to be so mean about it.”  Oddly enough, such tut-tutting about tone is usually accompanied by a passive-aggressive ad hominem attack that is, in spirit, nastier than the offending post.  As Carl states:

And so it goes; and as long as there are blogs and a free exchange of ideas, there is going to be those sort of remarks. Oddly enough, they usually come from people who insist they are the most tolerant, openminded, and expansive-souled folks in the cosmos. Such talk is cheap, and false tolerance is easier to steal and abuse than true civility is to learn and use rightly.


Humor and sarcasm can be usefully applied in much of our dialogue.  Sure we all face the risk of going overboard, and I know that I am no exception to this.  But we can find more valuable uses of our time than nit-picking about the tone of our political discourse – I say as I contribute yet another post on the topic.  Ah well, c’est la vie.

2 Responses to Bees in the Mouth

  • Over the years, I’ve found that some folks feel that any sort of strong or critical remark is “mean-spirited” or “harsh” or “nasty”, as if rendering judgment on the logic of an idea or the veracity of an argument were was somehow an outright hate crime.

    I find that to be fairly common here in the rural Midwest. People put great store on being “nice” and not offending anyone. A person who’s conservative at heart will listen to Limbaugh (for instance) and come away arguing the liberal position — even if he himself was arguing Limbaugh’s side the day before. They feel a blunt, confident argument as an attack — usually not on them, but on someone weaker than them — and feel a need to defend against it.

    I’ve had conversations where I made the exact same argument someone else did, but because I couched it in wordy language (weasel words, sometimes) and sprinkled it with disclaimers, I got credit where the other person got condemnation. I’ve learned that if I’m going to talk about how bad the schools are, for example, I have to start and end with a disclaimer about how much I love teachers, my mom was a teacher, teachers are our future, blah blah blah. Otherwise, I can talk about grade inflation, indoctrination, sexualization, bullying — everything but the teachers — and all the person will hear is, “I hate teachers!”

  • Paul, there really is no difference between then and now except, as you suggest, we’re in a sound bite age where words travel much faster and the lack of time between expression and consumption does not allow for any amelioration. But consider, too, that angry language and accusations in the past often led to sword fights or gun duels for the sake of honor alone, which pretty much died out with the Victorian Age. Now there is a lot more shouting perhaps but after the obligatory huffing and puffing and public apologies and mea culpas, the media move on to more spats to cover.

    More recently, just as an example who can forget Bill Buckley and Gore Vidal nearly coming to blows during their famous debates — both of whom comported themselves as gentlemen otherwise.

    Interesting piece, Paul. Last word goes to Aldous Huxley, who once said, “Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons.”