One reason why it is both right and prudent to treat others respectfully is that we seldom can know the true measure of an individual’s abilities and character. All human beings are complex, and all deserve an almost limitless benefit of the doubt before it is wise to dismiss them as unworthy of decent, respectful treatment. When we assume that someone whom we really don’t know very well is stupid, or evil, or not worth paying attention to, we not only treat them badly, we also put ourselves in peril, both of violating the Golden Rule, and also of looking foolish. Mockery, the child of contempt, is especially dangerous. When we mock others, we assume a superiority that may prove to be illusory.
Have I fallen victim to this ethical error? You betcha.
Which brings us to Sarah Palin.
At a recent speech, Palin warned Tea Partiers to avoid getting cocky, and not to “party like it’s 1773.” The date provoked great hilarity among liberal partisans and pundits who, as you know, long ago told us that Palin was a moron. “Daily Kos” founder Markos Moulitsas quoted the remark with a snide “She’s so smart.” in a Twitter feed. PBS’s Gwen Ifill ( a 2008 inductee into my Conflicted Journalists Hall of Fame because of her decision to moderate one of the presidential debates despite having a pro-Barack Obama book being readied for publication) quoted Palin’s use of the date in a tweet and added “ummm,”. Others were less subtle, writing “WTF happened in 1773?”
Now, despite being an American history buff and being brought up in Boston, I’m weak with dates. I wasn’t completely sure that the Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, but since this was Palin addressing a Tea Party group and telling them not to party like it’s 1773, and I know that the Tea Party movement named itself after the Boston Tea Party, I assumed that this is what she was referring to. (I checked the date later. Yup! ) But then I don’t have complete contempt for Sarah Palin, like so many pundits and journalists. I’m not a fan; I think she’s often irresponsible with her rhetoric and intellectually lazy; I think her quitting as Governor of Alaska was an abdication of duty, and I wouldn’t vote for her as President with gun pointed at my head, but I’m not biased against her. Because I’m not biased against her, I won’t assume that everything she says is wrong, mistaken, or idiotic. Ifill, Moulitsas and the rest are biased…so biased that they blinded themselves to the obvious, and looked ignorant as a result.
Really, now: if you knew nothing about Sarah Palin, and she was quoted as saying to a Tea Party group, named after the Boston Tea Party, which you knew occurred in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence and therefore happened at some point prior to 1776, that it wasn’t yet time to “party like it was 1773,” wouldn’t you be able to guess what the date signified? Wouldn’t anybody? Not crack PBS reporter Gwen Ifill though…because she assumed Palin was dumb, and wanted to mock her.
Now Ifill is backtracking, claiming that she knew what Palin meant all along. Ummmm—no. It is clear that she didn’t. We can only hope that Ifill and the other Palin-mockers learn that it is important to reserve a little respect, at very least, for everyone, even those who you disagree with or dislike. Not to do so is unfair and unkind, and it sometimes carries its own punishment.