By Bill Buchanan
At Tuesday night’s City Council candidates forum, Dennis Leary, he of the slogan “Love Ojai, Vote Leary,” decided to declare his lack of love for the present City Council by using a vulgar four-letter word we cannot print in this newspaper. He made the comment while decrying the Libbey Bowl lease negotiated and approved by council members.
Dennis — really — was that word absolutely necessary to make your point? Did it slip out in the heat of the passion you felt about the lease? Or was the remark premeditatedly uttered to elicit shock among those present at the event, and with the additional goal of putting “Leary” on the lips of all those in Ojai in the coming days through the inevitable publicity you would receive?
The Ojai Valley News does not generally endorse candidates, and this is not an endorsement of anyone opposing Dennis Leary in the upcoming election. But that word has no business being uttered in a public forum, and he should be ashamed. You are better than that, Dennis, or certainly should be.
In one way, I owe Dennis Leary a debt of gratitude. I had decided to write my column about the coarsening of our culture. The above is a perfect example.
I am not a prude. And I do not plan to campaign for a return to the Victorian era. I remember my Aunt Inus, born in 1901, telling me once how in her youth, the word “bull” carried sexual connotations, and was not used in mixed company. In polite society, if women were present, a bull was referred to as a “male” or as a “yearling” — even if he was 20 years old.
Those days are behind us, and I am not advocating their return. But it does seem that a lot of our society is just not very social —- and not very polite. There are countless examples of this, such as the New York gubernatorial candidate who recently yelled, “I’ll take you out, buddy!” at a journalist during a confrontation. I don’t think he meant he would like a date with him. Then there was the member of Congress who yelled out, “You lie,” during President Obama’s address to the nation. And there was the punch thrown by one Alabama state senator at another while on the floor of the state legislature that was a huge “YouTube” video hit a few years ago. The list goes on and on, and it isn’t just political —- although I cannot remember another time in my life when political parties seemed more divided and nastier to each other.
I believe there are three main contributors to this phenomenon:- becoming desensitized, anonymous communication and a lack of consequences for unacceptable behavior.
Many of us have become desensitized. A lot of people now communicate via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting as opposed to actual personal interaction. We type what we want to say instead of talking on the phone, or in person. Typing and/or texting tends to be abbreviated and less expressive. Without personal contact, you do not hear or see the effect your words have on the other person. You do not sense the emotions your words may cause. When you communicate face-to-face, if you say something that hurts the other person’s feelings, you often realize that right away, and may back off a little or even apologize for what you have said. You don’t usually get that same feedback from a text.
A lot of our communication is anonymous. People post comments to blogs under fictitious names. This gives some false courage. They take this liberty to say hurtful, nasty and abusive things about others that they would never post if required to give their name. We face the decision regarding the pros and cons of such communication here at the Ojai Valley News on an ongoing basis. We require letters to the editor to be signed, and we verify that the signatures are accurate. We publish the names of the author. But we do not require published signatures on “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down,” which is one of our most popular features. We also do not require identification on blog posts. Consequently, we get some marginally acceptable and even unacceptable comments. It is a dilemma, and one that Lenny and I debate routinely.
Society accepts unacceptable behavior. Parents often tolerate behavior from their children that amazes me. I have seen absolutely abysmal conduct from the children of some of my friends go completely unpunished. I have heard those parents try to reason with their children about “making better choices” and even criticizing other adults for making negative comments about the child’s actions.
I was raised a different way. Bad behavior had consequences. I was certainly not a model child. In fact, I was very difficult. But I knew if I behaved badly and got caught, I was in for something unpleasant. When my daddy was alive, he was the master of corporal punishment. When I stepped way out of bounds, Daddy would tell me to go wait in the bedroom, and he would be in later “with the belt.” The sense of doom and dread while waiting was always worse than the actual whipping. Sometimes I was tempted to go to the door and yell, “Please get in here so we get this over with!”
My mother had a different approach, especially as I grew older. I was very close to my mother. And while we had the inevitable disagreements that teenagers and their parents have, there was no one I wanted to please more than her. Mother knew this, and so when I acted inappropriately, she would sit me down for a talk. She would calmly explain how my behavior was bad, and that it had hurt her deeply, and that she was worried about my future if I didn’t correct my mistakes, and so on. My mother became the travel agent for guilt trips. After one of those talks, I would not have felt any worse than if you had tied me to a tree and beaten me with a logging chain.
Did I turn out perfectly? No. Am I a better person than I would have been if my bad behavior would have gone unpunished? Absolutely.
How do we correct all this? Well, publicity about road rage incidents has probably cut down a little on discourteous driving and obscene gestures behind the wheel. The thought that the person you want to yell at or gesture to might come after you with a gun or golf club probably acts as a deterrent for some. But some type of vigilante threat or martial law is not a good answer.
Maybe if we all just stepped back and gave a little more thought before we talked or typed. Maybe if we thought, “Would I say or do this if everyone knew it was me —- would I say or send this if I thought of the effect it might have on the recipient — would I do this if I knew it was going to cause trouble or pain?”
Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.”
That might be a good start.