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The Adolescent State of Contemporary Political Discourse

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley  |

Contemporary political discourse reminds one of a locker room full of pubescent boys trying to out-gross and out-bad one another (with apologies to decent teenagers everywhere).

Females also get into the competition for the most repugnant linguistic outrage.

On Saturday night, April 28, it appeared comedian Michelle Wolf might have been in a battle with Fresno State professor Randa Farrar for the pottiest mouth award of the week. Wolf's primary target at the White House Correspondents' Dinner was Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Donald Trump's White House spokesperson. Farrar's execrable invectives a week earlier were aimed at the deceased Barbara Bush and her family.

Then there's the president of the United States himself. The nation's chief executive is a powerful shaper of political discourse. I write this still feeling revulsion over the repugnant language of my boss, Richard Nixon, recorded on the Oval Office Watergate tapes.

President Trump has usually avoided gutter-type expletives in his public speech, but he is a frequent user of ad hominem attacks. To name a few, Trump has spoken of "very weak" Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz the "maniac," political consultant Frank Luntz as a "low-class slob," Bernie Sanders as a "whack-job," Marco Rubio as "little," and a "lightweight," and Ben Carson, now a member of the president's Cabinet, was once labeled by Trump as "pathological."

The surest sign that institutions setting the nation's cultural tone are falling into an adolescent state is the intensifying use of ad hominem in political discourse—ranging from the president of the United States to journalists, entertainers, and academics.

Ad hominem is a Latin term meaning, broadly, "to the person." When opponents are unable to win debates with intelligent arguments they are tempted to stop addressing the issue and instead focus on tearing down the person. The arguments will shift to character, personality, physical attributes (or lack thereof), intelligence, parentage, motives, anything that will denigrate, reduce, and mock one's challenger.

"How blessed" is the person who does not "sit in the seat of scoffers," says Psalm 1. But the practitioner of ad hominem scrambles for that perch.

Those who resort so often to ad hominem reveal a great deal about themselves People will turn to ad hominem when their knowledge of issues is shallow. Others love the ad hominem style because of their own need to gain significance. Prejudice and bigotry also spark ad hominem. Hate is probably the biggest motivator for ad hominem.

Hillary Clinton was falling into the ad hominem pattern when she termed the type of people who might vote for Trump as "deplorables." Then there was the Washington Post's description of evangelical Christians as "poor, ignorant, and easily led." To its credit, the Post later apologized.

All this raises the question: Are there any grown-ups left in American political, media-entertainment, and educational establishments?

Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States, held speech—including political discourse—as a tool to be used with great care. A man once went on a walk with Coolidge, and, as Amity Shlaes describes it in her fine biography of Coolidge, the man noted "that Coolidge spoke well, omitting powerful curse words, and even the feebler New England diaconal oaths such as 'by heck,' and 'by crackcy' from his speech."

When it comes to choices of words, Trump, regrettably—especially in light of his increasing policy triumphs—is the anti-Coolidge.

Winston Churchill, master-orator, could shoot verbal barbs with the best of them, but the difference between Churchill and contemporary discourse is that the invective did not become the style.

F-bombs are everywhere today. Many are the ears plugged with devices that pound brains with the verbal abominations of styles some dare call "music." When notable public people who should be icons of propriety fall into the locker room style, it contributes to the moral and spiritual dumbing down of the culture.

"In the beginning was the Word," writes the Apostle John, and "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." The Greek term is Logos, which means much more than mere utterance, but the very essence of the speaker and the thought transmitted through a word.

A person's words strip off the veneer of pretense, and reveal the true core of his or her character.

Words "fitly spoken," says Proverbs 25:11, are like "apples of gold in baskets of silver." With the loss of the concept of Transcendence and the deepening of biblical illiteracy in our society, the respect for "word" has been lost. Ad hominem flourishes in such a culture like bacterial scum in water that was once a fresh, life-giving stream but has turned into a cesspool.

Or like a locker room full of immature children trying to assert their significance by being the "baddest" kid of all.

Hopefully, America will come out of the malodorous ad hominem-expletivelocker room and recover dignity in its cultural and political discourse. Donald Trump and his fellow combatants in mud-slinging could start us back to the recovery of dignity, but that will require maturity, a quality hard to attain in an adolescent culture.

We are in desperate need for grown-ups.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and Chair of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree. He is a former White House and Congressional aide, and co-author of "God and Churchill", with Winston Churchill's great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys.

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