Outbursts by Barr, Bee Symptoms of Deteriorating Public Discourse

Last week, Rosanne Barr had her show cancelled because of her racist tweet about a member of the Obama administration and Samantha Bee got into hot water for using the “C-word” to describe the President’s daughter. In both cases, their conduct was deplorable, although not equivalent, as some right-wing commentators have charged.

Arguing which was worse, however, is like debating whether to go to the gallows or stand in front of a firing squad. Both are awful. Since the outcome is the same, such a discussion is meaningless.

The outbursts by these two entertainers – and responses to them – are symptomatic of a larger problem: public discourse has sunk to a such a low level that it no longer seems possible to engage in civilized conversation on important subjects that affect the country’s future. Unless we, as a nation, are able achieve consensus on vital issues such as immigration, gun control, race, climate change and healthcare, we will become increasingly divided and gridlocked. How can we do that when all people do is repeat their side’s talking points?

People whose political leanings bend toward one end of the spectrum or the other no longer hear what the other side has to say. They get their news and analysis inside an echo chamber from outlets like MSNBC, The Atlantic and Daily Kos on the left and Fox News, Breitbart and Drudge Report on the right. Stories from the other point of view are branded as “fake news” and either ignored or attacked.

Often, social media, the great amplifier, is first place people get their news. On Facebook and Twitter we tend to connect with like-minded people and block those who don’t share our point of view. But, how can you formulate a cogent response to opposing views when you haven’t even heard or read them?

In normal times, the President tries to bring people together. It’s part of being a leader. We saw that from George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. We also saw that from New York City’s mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, who recently became a mouthpiece for the current President.

But these are not normal times, and we do not have a normal President. Instead of trying to put out the flames of divisiveness Donald Trump pours gasoline on them. Last year, he called white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., “fine people.” This year, he uses the racially charged term “animals” to describe undocumented immigrants who have entered this country from Latin America.

While he said he was talking only about members of the vicious gang MS-13, as he continues using to using the term it is likely to become more generalized in the minds of his audience. Don’t believe me? Ask Italian-Americans who lived with the stigma of association with the mafia.

Changing the conversation – or at least it’s tone – in this environment is a tall order, but it must happen. We need to find common ground, so people can relate to one another again. Our political system needs reform so that elected officials are no longer beholden to one-issue voters and extremists. We can no longer allow the views of the majority to be marginalized.

We need to change the language, too. Talk about public safety rather than gun control, inclusion instead of diversity or affirmative action, coastal protection instead of climate change, etc. We should be compassionate and just in treating each other but deal harshly with those who break the rules and threaten others.

Regardless of where they stand politically, Americans share core values such as liberty, equality, democracy and individualism. We may debate their meanings and how we allocate resources, but we must never lose sight of what this country stands for.

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