We all know Vice President Biden’s mouth is only loosely connected to his brain. To some this is charming; to others it is irritating or scary. His tendency in unguarded moments to slip into vernacular hitherto regarded as undignified and inappropriate for high elected officials and unsuitable for family newspapers is part of a national crisis in civility. It is a symptom of it, but when our leaders give in to destructive cultural trends, they reinforce them.
Biden’s latest was to call a Milwaukee custard shop manager a “smart-ass,” captured, like everything else, on YouTube. Combined with President Obama’s uncomfortable “whose ass to kick” quote earlier this month, Biden’s comment officially establishes ass as acceptable discourse. With ass making the grade, next up will probably be the more vulgar term ass-hole. An AFL-CIO economist recently called TV talk-show host Neil Cavuto that expletive in a recent live interview, and more is doubtless to come. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” routinely uses ass-hole on cable TV, as do many prominent bloggers. Biden also became the latest public official to be recorded using a version of fuck, which has had a banner year on live TV, from an unprofessional “Saturday Night Live” actress to countless award winners in music award shows.
So what, you say?
This is “what.” Civility is the means by which a society enforces customs and habits of respect for others, which allows a free society to have productive and open debate, to contend with violence and rancor, and to keep daily contact with others fair and gentile. Civility imposes a measure of self-control and restraint on our conduct that allows other ethical principles to thrive.
It is the nature of free societies for manners, etiquette, gentility and habits of civility to deteriorate over time. Flip-flops and tank tops on airplanes, going to the opera in jogging shoes, using “suck” in TV commercials, elderly passengers standing on buses while healthy, younger passengers sit, and “male enhancement” commercials all show this, as well as too many other equally depressing developments. Because this process threatens peaceful and pleasant society, it is the duty of everyone in authority or public prominence, especially our elected leaders to do their utmost to support and bolster civility, not tear it down. Leaders are role models. Leaders set ethical standards, whether they want to or not. If they show us that they don’t think civility matters, then they will accelerate the process of decay.
Vice-President Biden is not the only one to shirk his duty to be civil, but he is one of the most prominent. It’s important to think before you speak, Joe, and not just because it can be embarrassing when you don’t. We know you’re used to that part. You can help American society keep some semblance of civilization, or you can speed its slide into habitual rudeness.
Try to work on it, OK?