Take any sampling of say, 500 Americans. Ask each of them if the language of today’s political rhetoric and public discourse through the media is too inflammatory, too mean spirited. To the last one, they would say yes. They might even go so far as to say it is worse than it has ever been.
We hear talk now of class warfare, of the cruelty of attacking the past of presidential nominees, of racial slurs and religious intolerance. Too big to fail, too many jobs to fail, too interconnected to fail, socialism!, destroying our grandchildren’s future, killing our planet! Our sampling of Americans would probably express distaste and even anger at the temperature and edge of the words in our modern discourse.
But the modern American pundit or politician has no corner on that market. Caustic words and vitriolic rants have been a fixture of our free society all along. Take for example what John Adams said of Alexander Hamilton:
“[He is the] bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar [who] had a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.” Wow. And that guy was our president.
Or what about the impeachment hearings of the Viceroy of India Warren Hastings? Of him Richard Sheridan said:
“There is, by some foul, unfathomable, physical source in his mind, a conjunction merely of whatever is calculated to make human nature hang its head with sorrow or shame. His crimes are the only great thing about him, and these are contrasted by the littleness of his motives. He is at once a tyrant, a trickster, a visionary, and a deceiver. He reasons in bombast, prevaricates in metaphor, and quibbles in heroics.”
Acerbic speech is far from our problem. It is a sideshow; a permanent fixture of public discourse. It is the froth of the moment brought up from the brew of potent thought and visceral reaction. It should be more amusing than insulting – and ultimately it should be irrelevant.