Whenever I want to feel a little older, I start to recall that National Lampoon’s Animal House, a cinematic celebration of gleeful destructiveness and youthful excess that will soon be celebrating its 40th anniversary, came out while I was in college. I still remember seeing it for the first time and laughing at the derisive Deltas slapping down the officious Omegas—with the added bonus of a Delta throwing up on the Dean after a long night out. Seen from the perspective of a college student who was—as all college students are—convinced that authority existed solely to get in the way of a good time, it was pretty heady stuff.
Of course, the coolly clever put-down did not begin with Animal House. There have been smart alecks reminding us of our all-too-human weaknesses since the dawn of humanity, and Bluto and Otter can certainly find their modern ancestors sitting around the Algonquin Round Table or running circles around a befuddled Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brother’s movie.
Our culture is now defined, if our diverse culture can be defined at all, by the stinging one-liner. From Jon Stewart to the Twitter post of a millisecond ago, the last decade or so has been one of mocking and deriding everyone for everything. Add a topping of moral outrage to our stinging rebukes, and we can sum up 21st century civic discourse thusly: I’m right, and you’re an idiot.
Much of this is, of course, entertaining. In addition, listening to those with whom we disagree suffer the slings and arrows of those with whom we do agree, provides a shivering sense of personal virtue that cannot be denied. After all, if your ideas are correct, why can you be so easily be mocked?
However, as much fun as this all is for everyone involved, I am not certain whether we have reached a tipping point where our constant carping is doing nothing more that fraying the thin veil of civility that any society needs to survive. Nothing much is solved in this world by calling everyone else an asshole, and this constant drumbeat of invective likely convinces a great many decent and thoughtful individuals to avoid public service altogether. To know that, if my policies or personality are unpopular, I might have to be subjected to a bunch of “artists” parading naked statues of me (sans testicles) around the country, is to know that running for elective office is an exercise for masochists. If you’re ever wondering why so few thoughtful or considerate individuals bother putting their name on a ballot, you need only turn on a basic cable channel or log onto social media.
Moreover, if my opponents are, by definition, a bunch of jerks, the possibility of dialogue and discussion seems distant. To talk is to admit that someone else’s viewpoint might valid—or even correct. This requires one to invite conversation by courteously listening to an opposing viewpoint and carefully weighing what is said. At the end of this process, those on both sides of the discussion must be able to carefully address the arguments both for and against before arriving at a synthesis that provides a mutually satisfactory resolution—and leads to yet more debate about potential solutions that respects all points of view.
Whew! That sounds like a lot of work. Therefore, why don’t I just say “screw you” and walk away—still securely wrapped in my snarky self-righteousness?
As we have abandoned the public sphere to special interests and the self-interested for the comforts of spewing insults from behind a keyboard, we have lost much of what makes our nation run—a communal sense of responsibility and a respect for those with whom we disagree. It was once possible, within human memory that need not stretch back too many decades, for those of different political beliefs to work together, compromise, and pass policies that served broad national interests. That was, of course, before we discovered that everyone else in our country is a total moron, and we decided it was best to put all of our energies toward crafting nasty little comments about all those who are not as wise as ourselves.
Oh, by the way, I think Animal House is on next week….