I think a lot of folks tend to forget that at its most basic, politics is about people. Real people elect other real people to represent them and administer government, from your local mayor to the President of the United States. It’s the interaction between people, ideas, policy and lawmaking that gives us politics.
What a lot of folks, particularly those who walk around in life with their chins out waiting to be offended, don’t seem to realize (or don’t want to accept) is that real people are just that – real. They say dumb things. They laugh at inappropriate times. They make jokes that aren’t really funny about subjects that shouldn’t be joked about. They are going to make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of being human.
Unless you’re in politics. There, any off color joke isn’t just an off color joke, it’s evidence of latent racism/homophobia/bigotry/insensitivity. Swearing is a moral failing, because well-educated people have large enough vocabularies that they don’t need to swear. Never use words that you see your kids using, because serious people don’t say things like amazeballs or totes magotes, or use txt slang like IKR. Sarcasm is something that should also never be contemplated – especially in the written word – because it’s so easily misinterpreted. Somebody didn’t get your sarcasm? Well, you’re an idiot for using it to begin with – what did you think was going to happen? And don’t even think about irony. You make a bad joke (like John Whitbeck  did) and suddenly you’re antisemitic. You make a sarcastic comment on Facebook (like Steve Martin  did) and suddenly you hate women. You misuse a swear word on Facebook you didn’t know was vulgar because you’re an old white guy who needs to get out more (like Bob FitzSimmonds  did) and you are called upon to resign every position you hold.
Come on, people. This insanity needs to stop. Are we really going to howl that politicos should be held accountable for saying something dumb on the same medium where people spend large amounts of time posting pictures of cats talking in broken English?
I don’t care whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or a Communist, at some point in your life you will say something stupid. Politicos are no different from every other person in that regard. Holding our politicians to a higher standard than regular people is ridiculous because they are simply that – regular people. Being elected or appointed to office does not make you super human. It doesn’t make you smarter than you were before you were elected. It doesn’t make you any more or less virtuous. We still expect our elected leaders to follow the same laws and morals as anybody else is expected to follow, and in areas where they have greater responsibility we do expect more of them – but that should always be about the job they’re holding.
This is part of the overall problem with politics in the internet age. We communicate more now via the written word than at any time in history. Email, text messages, blogs – you write more now than even the most prolific letter writers did a century ago, and more now than at any time since the invention of the telephone. And, unlike a telephone call, everything you write is easily transferred, copied, cut and pasted, screenshot and thrown around. Thus, if you are looking for excuses to be offended, or you’re looking for a reason to mock or revile somebody, you can find it. At some point, if you are desperate to smear somebody, you will find something they’ve written and you can spin it to make them look foolish or worse, which is exactly what HuffPo did to Senator Steve Martin earlier this week. This is just one of the many downsides to such ubiquitous access to the internet.
That’s been one of the biggest revolutions of modern era – thanks to modern communications and social media, people have greater access to their representatives in government. And that means people now recognize that politicians of all stripes are just regular people. So why do we keep trying to hold them to standards that no regular person could be held to? And why aren’t we holding the people who are constantly offended by everything (I call them the “perpetually offended”) to a higher standard? At some point, the constant whining about what other people have said gets old.
The arguments against my desire to stop the insanity are easy to predict:
But these people should be held to a higher standard because they have power! Well, sure, if you’re talking about a higher standard of ethics or a higher standard of abiding by the laws they write. But should we expect that every politician not swear, not drink, not smoke, not make off-color jokes, not watch Cinemax, not post write what they think on Facebook, not use sarcasm, not eat too much or be too fat, all while they are also called upon to not be too polished, too slick, too holier-than-thou, too airbrushed or too goody-two-shoes? I don’t think so. If you feel that way, you’re setting yourself and them up for failure. Jefferson Smith is a movie character, not a real U.S. Senator. Real people do dumb things. It’s inevitable.
But saying those things, especially on Facebook where everyone can see them, shows poor judgment! Do we want people in office with poor judgment? This is the kind of argument that sounds plausible but when you peel back the layers is just the “higher standard” argument with lip gloss. We want our officials to demonstrate good judgment when it comes to doing their jobs. When I see a Republican swear or make an off-color joke, I don’t question their judgment. When I see them advocating for expanding Medicaid or regulating Big Gulps, that’s when I question their judgment.
But, Brian, you said all those nasty things about Bob Marshall, aren’t you being a hypocrite for cutting him no slack while you cut Bob/Steve/John and others slack? No, I’m not. I’m saying we should give folks like FitzSimmonds and Whitbeck (Steve said nothing to apologize for – he was taken out of context) the benefit of the doubt. Neither of them have a track record for saying stupid things. Bob, on the other hand, has made a career saying stupid things to the point that many of us (me especially) think he does it on purpose. And after twenty years of saying offensive things, it’s hard to argue that he just made a mistake, when he’s made the same mistake a couple dozen times. There’s a big difference between a one off mistake on Facebook and Bob Marshall’s entire career.
If we want politicians to continue to engage in social media with constituents – which we should – and if we want regular people to choose to run for office – which we should – we have got to stop treating them differently than we would treat anybody else. They don’t need to resign, they don’t need to be drummed out of the party, and they don’t need the harassment, threats and the like that often come with making a high profile mistake. There is no reason for anybody, on either side of the aisle, to hyperventilate every time somebody says something stupid on social media.
Real people do dumb things, and people who want to get offended will find any excuse to do so. It’s time we stop turning every stupid comment into Watergate and stop letting the perpetually offended frame our public debate.