Like most people from my generation (late-baby-boomers or early whatever-is-in-between-that-and-Gen-X?), I was taught to respect my elders, my teachers, or anyone in a position of authority, even if I disagreed with them. This apparently outdated training gave us very good manners and some real difficulty in calling our parents’ friends by their first names even when we were parents ourselves. It also meant that we behaved respectfully toward bosses or elected officials even if we couldn’t stand them or their politics, so that up until recently, political discourse always at least had the veneer of politeness.
These days, of course, it’s easy to point to the collapse of civility everywhere from Congress to preschool. (And yes, there’s a joke in there somewhere about how I just insulted preschoolers.) Some of this informality is welcome – for example, since between my husband, my kids and myself we have three different last names at my house, it’s just easier to go by my first name; and I certainly don’t long for those days when my mother put on a girdle, stockings, a dress, heels, and even gloves to go to the grocery store. But as many writers on this site have pointed out, not holding back our opinions is part of why there’s such partisan gridlock in government. Can’t we manage to be polite and courteous even to people with whom we disagree? (And how many of you had the equivalently old-fashioned education to notice that correct grammar?)
I like to pride myself on that ability to rise above petty differences. It’s worked with my ex-husband, to the point where we can sit together at our kids’ events, and only my closest friends know all the mean-spirited little digs I was tempted to throw out there but didn’t. It’s worked with my friends who have different political views – yes, some of my best friends are Republicans. (Of course I live in the San Francisco area, so Republicans here tend to have liberal social views along with being more fiscally conservative; on the other hand, one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons showed one woman describing her latest date to a friend, “He says he’s a social liberal and a fiscal conservative – which just means he sleeps around and he’s cheap.” But I digress”¦)
However, sometimes it’s just too hard to stay polite and respectful, particularly when someone says or does something too egregious to ignore. (Or in kids’ parlance, “He started it!”) And this can be true even for Supreme Court justices. I had my first taste of head-scratching behavior by one of these lofty figures when I spent a semester in college as a DC intern. (This was back when being an intern had nothing to do with jokes about presidential infidelity.) Our group got to meet with Potter Stewart, who had just made headlines with his statement that while he couldn’t define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. Not only did he reiterate that view to us, he elaborated by explaining he’d had to view quite a bit of the material in question to come up with his conclusion. Somehow, the idea of a fairly elderly man in a black robe rationalizing his porn consumption knocked the Supreme Court off the pedestal in my mind – I realized they were just people like anyone else, extremely influential, and presumably more intelligent than most of us, but not necessarily. (Not to mention the fact that a Supreme Court justice discussing pornography with sophomoric college juniors was already pretty surreal, as well as giving us all bad cases of suppressed snickers.)
So speaking of ludicrous statements by Supreme Court justices, I had planned to resist the temptation to write about Antonin Scalia’s ranting opinions, dissents, and other tirades in recent months, but the combination of his “argle-bargle” comment and his son now claiming that homosexuality simply doesn’t exist was just impossible to ignore – and impossible for me to remain civil and completely respectful. (Although I will give the man credit – he makes the nation’s highest court both colorful and great material for comedians!)
“The Scalia Song”