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. 

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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.”