Searching for Unity in a Sea of Exclamation Points

by Rich Manieri
[cartoon id="247858"] An email laced with exclamation points is never a good sign. At least not if you’re me. In my world, exclamation points usually follow words such as “idiot!” or “communist!” I take issue with the latter though the former is certainly up for discussion. Moreover, when the salutation itself is followed by an exclamation point, as it was in a recent email, I know it’s trouble. “Mr. Manieri!” Inside voice. I’m right here. This particular writer went on to make several assumptions about my intellect, or lack of. He ended with a call to action. “Defend your character!” For context, the writer was responding to a column I wrote in which I blamed President Trump for lighting the fuse that led to the Capitol riots. He went on to ask how I could do such a thing when it was clear that members of Antifa and Black Lives Matter were bused in and were, in fact, responsible for the insurrection - a claim without any basis in fact. My response featured a conspicuous absence of exclamation points as I encouraged the writer to keep an eye on his blood pressure. I resisted quoting from Proverbs 15: "Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.” If you watch much television, or any television, or if you engage in social media, it’s pretty clear that we tend to punctuate our discourse with exclamation points. Perhaps Jerry Springer was actually a visionary. He understood the marketability of impoliteness and boorish behavior long before it went mainstream. (By the way, I promise never to use the name “Springer” and the word “visionary” in the same sentence again.) Civility has fallen out of fashion. Some say it’s overrated. How do I know this? I refer you to a Dec. 2019 piece in the Atlantic titled, “Civility is Overrated.” An NPR article in 2019 quotes Lynn Itagaki, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, who said, “Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent.” By this redefinition of civility, it would be permissible and even encouraged to meet any injustice, perceived or actual, with an uncivil response. That’s fine if you happen to agree on the injustice. For example, if your candidate loses a presidential election and you believe the election was rigged, storming the Capitol might be an appropriately uncivil response. Thus, if you disagree with someone and you’re convinced you’re on the right side, what’s the point of a civil response? After all, you’re right and he’s wrong. Many believe our national discourse fell apart the moment Donald Trump darkened the doorway of the Oval Office. Surely, the former president, with his unhelpful rhetoric, name-calling and incessant tweeting contributed to the problem. But he wasn’t alone. Our elected representatives in Washington - Republicans and Democrats - have been content to play their respective parts in the Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch. “Is this the right room for an argument?” “I told you once.” “No you haven’t.” “Yes I have.” “When?” “Just now.” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I did.” The main difference, of course, between the sketch and reality is there’s nothing even mildly amusing about the real thing. For what it’s worth, President Biden struck mostly the right tone in his inauguration speech. "I pledge this to you - I will be a president for all Americans, and I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did," Biden said. He then signed 15 executive orders undoing various Trump policies. Unity is a fine message but no amount of rhetorical gymnastics will bring people together unless we’re willing to understand and listen to those with whom we disagree. That means acknowledging that not all of the 75 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump are racists and that not everyone who voted for Joe Biden is pushing a Marxist agenda. From the president on down, unless we’re truly committed to making unity a reality, it won’t happen, no matter how many exclamation points we use. - Copyright 2020 Rich Manieri, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at [email protected]