An oversimplification of Kant’s discourse on why we should not break promises goes something like this: to break a promise, or to make one with no intention of keeping it, renders meaningless the very act of promising itself. It’s a simple point made in the broader argument for his categorical imperative, which has been the subject of must philosophical debate. But it seems pretty clear that anyone with a reputation of not following through on their word loses authority and respect.
The promise — along with the very concepts of responsibility and sincerity themselves — are always under attack in public political discourse, since politics reflects man’s sinful and self-interested nature. No surprise there. And while there is definitely nothing new under the sun, every once in a while an instance of dirty politics reminds us how hypocritical we are.
Calls for more civility in politics abound from the left and right, as we are constantly besieged with cable news headlines that carry on pointless (and often hurtful) semantic battles between one talk host and another. The organized response to such brinksmanship has taken on forms like the non-profit group “No Labels,” which has proposed some good, but unimplemented, structural changes to the executive and legislative branches. Most of these proposals have gotten little media coverage, taking a backseat to flamethrowers whose relentless political maneuvering (most recently over an impending government shutdown) is much better material for keeping the few people watching still tuned in.
Enter, briefly, the world of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has repeatedly called for an “increase in civility” in politics. A few days ago, she branded her party’s fiercest opponents in the latest government budget battle “legislative arsonists.” Within the past week, she has also called President Obama “a nonpartisan president,” and accused Republicans of wanting to “take down” his presidency because his nonpartisanship is “very hard for them to cope with.”
Speaker Pelosi is not a media host — she is not Bill Maher or Glenn Beck, whose careers were built largely on draining the reserve of public decency by taking cheap partisan shots at their opponents. Pelosi’s comments are thus inexplicable. No constituent, interest group or lobbyist could have demanded that she voice this opinion of her political opposition. And if anger is to blame, politicians have a responsibility to save most of their personal frustration for private conversation. Taking every thought to the public discredits political authority, since we have a lot of thoughts, even the leaders among us, that aren’t worth sharing out loud. Politics is personal, but get too personal and you begin to lose virtue and professionalism. You appear insincere and inconsiderate, engaged in the same old game that everyone hates.
It’s pretty intuitive that as the fourth estate of American politics has made content readily accessible and constant for the information consumer, the quality of their product has gone down. But while the news itself is an information product, its quality affects the quality of what it’s delivering to the consumer: a politician’s speech, for instance, or a televised debate. The media cycle encourages newsmakers to share the basest thoughts that come to mind. But for what? For whom? The only plausible answer is for itself. Calling your opponents “arsonists” neither helps your side nor the political processes. It merely helps a struggling cable channel retain a small portion of the viewers who are leaving in the mass exodus from content drained of real political significance.
We have a responsibility to restore sincerity, virtue and — perhaps most importantly — meaning into most of what passes as political discourse on television and in print. As citizens, we have a duty to boycott media that refuses to respect the process it works under. As Yalies, we have a responsibility to make sure that our discourse about issues we care about doesn’t become self-defeating by becoming too emotional, flippant or self-righteous. In short, we have a responsibility to teach ourselves to become good citizens, and to check ourselves when we realize we fail. A more humble, sincere approach to politics is better for its own sake, but it also produces better results — an effect we should all be able to get behind.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Johnathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .