Has Everyone Lost Their Decency? And What Does that Even Mean?
by Neil H. Buchanan
In a recent column, I used the word "indecency" to describe a comment from one of Dorf on Law's most persistent trolls. Specifically, the troll in question tried to bolster his argument against women's reproductive rights not by making anything resembling a reasoned argument but by resorting to ad hominem attacks. That in itself is not indecent, but one of those ad hominem attacks mocked a law professor who had recently written a searing column in The New York Times under the headline: "I Was Raped by My Father. An Abortion Saved My Life."
Even people who are eager to control women's bodies would, one think, at least acknowledge that some personal experiences are simply heart-breaking and deserve respect. Not our troll, who decided that the better move was to sneer at the pain that the writer had bravely shared with readers of The Times.
That troll's mockery was one of the coincident events that led Professor Dorf to make the unfortunate -- but entirely appropriate -- decision to shut down comments on this site, as he explained in: "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Blog Closed to Comments." Years of low-level trolling by various readers had recently accelerated and intensified, and it was no longer sensible to continue to provide a platform for that kind of ugliness. Comments closed.
Here, I want to discuss the broader problem of this kind of indecent cruelty and lack of empathy (or even basic humanity). Importantly, there is a difference between coarsening of social interactions and outright indecency, although of course there is no clear line that says when something has gone too far.
Before getting there, however, it is worth sharing one additional datum about the offending troll whose mockery was so far beyond the pale. Shortly after I published my column, he responded to his inability to write his usual nonsense on the comment board by sending an angry email directly to me and Professor Dorf. It read, in its entirety: "Does it occur to you that you have such a problem with 'trolls' because no serious person would bother to read your column?"
When I forwarded that email to a friend, her response was: "Isn't that the ultimate self-own?" It is, of course, as it is an admission of not being -- by the troll's own description -- a serious person. Beyond that, however, it was an especially apt comment from a Donald Trump supporter, because Trump has always famously obsessed over slights on late night shows, even while saying that "no one watches ______ anymore." Apparently one loser does. I will report back to our readers which way this person goes in the impossible dilemma that he has set up for himself: either swallow his anger or once again admit that he reads the blog after repeatedly claiming not to.
So that was all rather amusing, but it is worth discussing here because that response is the kind of nonsense that does not count as indecency. Not even close. Being relentlessly and shamelessly obtuse over the space of years, relying on ever more flimsy false equivalences, is something, but it is not indecent. Becoming a horrible person is another. Again, how can we distinguish the two?
Frank Bruni, a former Times columnist who simply will not go away after teasing us with his retirement, is certainly obtuse, but I have never read any of his columns as being indecent. Indeed, much like his now-former co-columnist Nicholas Kristof, decency seemed to be the thing that he very consciously tried to bring to the table in his work. He was too much of an intellectual lightweight to do much with his platform, and he spent most of his time playing up the supposed reasonableness of centrism; but even though centrists' policy choices harm vulnerable people, there was clearly no animus or intent to harm in anything that Bruni wrote.
And as it happens, Bruni's most recent "I'm back!" column tried to focus on this question of social decency, with the piece even carrying the sub-headline in the search results: "The collapse of decency feeds the attack on democracy." Again, his heart seems to be in the right place, but because Bruni is Bruni, he discussed the least interesting thing about the loss of decency in American life, or as he put it, "the degradation of the country’s civic spirit and the foulness of its mood."
Bruni expanded upon Times columnist Sarah Lyall's recent discussion of "customer freak-outs and meltdowns," as he put it, adding that "those bespeak a nastiness and selfishness that go hand in hand with disrespect for the institutions and traditions that have steadied us." Before squandering the rest of his column on a collection of his colleagues' less-than-helpful thoughts, he offered this Hallmark card moment:
There’s too little joy at present. In its stead: recrimination, rancor and indecency — which is the prompt for this reflection and the pivot to a plea. As we begin and lurch through a new year, can we recognize that the best way to fix what’s broken isn’t with a sledgehammer? The rioters at the Capitol lost sight of that. The rest of us mustn’t.
No, we mustn't. But dumbing down the meaning and power of an essential concept like decency/indecency is not going to make life more joyful. Am I being harsh in describing Bruni? Absolutely, as he so richly deserves. Is this anywhere near the line of indecency? Be serious.
And I say this even though I am absolutely appalled at the behavior that Lyall and Bruni condemn. Having washed out as a restaurant server after only 13 days on the job when I was in my twenties, I have always understood just how difficult that particular kind of work is. And dealing with condescending and self-important customers is soul-sucking. As soon as I had enough money to do so, I made sure to tip at much higher rates than usual. In a country where we somehow allow the law to include the self-contradictory concept of a "sub-minimum wage," it is the least that one can do.
At least this example, however, is in the right direction. That is, one of the most important markers of indecency (not always necessary nor sufficient, but often both) is punching down, that is, a person with relatively more power using that power to attempt to bully and humiliate a weaker person. As bad as yelling at servers or checkout people can be, however, it is (except in the most extreme circumstances, which do seem to be on the on rise as well) not so bad that we could call it indecent or tie it to the death of democracy.
It seems to me that a key question is just how weak the weaker party is. In a recent column, Professor Colb rightly criticized Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Sotomayor would never make my list of "people most likely to transgress the bounds of decency" -- and indeed, Professor Colb wrote that "Justice Sotomayor is one of the only decent human beings left on the Supreme Court" -- but this was truly bad. Professor Colb summarized the point this way:
Justice Sotomayor told Trevor [Noah] about going into a restroom when she was about thirty and injecting insulin. Two other women entered the restroom during the process, and one whispered to the other "that's an addict." Justice Sotomayor explained to the whisperer that she (Justice Sotomayor) was not an addict, that she is just a diabetic taking insulin and that the woman should not assume the worst but should instead ask questions.My first thought was "why is 'addict' the worst?" A person who needs insulin is quite similar to a person addicted to an opioid. Both people will suffer pain, distress, and danger if they do not get the medicine they need.
Precisely. Addicts are in a much worse situation than service workers -- but again, that does not excuse the abuse that service workers endure -- and they do not even have the option of joining "the great resignation" and saying enough is enough. Not that minimum-wage workers have great options, and the current moment will probably soon revert to a situation in which they lack bargaining power, but again, there is bad and there is worse.
We should not see a Supreme Court justice (or anyone else) reinforcing the idea that drug addicts are bad people. That Sotomayor did so in a genteel way, without being verbally abusive or nasty, does not change the fact that it is indecent to engage in shaming and othering people who are suffering.
A recent episode of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" dealt with the growing problem of homelessness in the United States. The story is even more grim than one might think, as Oliver laid out in heartbreaking fashion. The indecency involved is not always the most obvious kind of cruel lack of concern that one sees from some entitled people.
The TV show "Archer" includes a character (voiced by the late, great Jessica Walter) who is infamously contemptuous of those she deems her inferiors -- which is everyone. In one episode (Season 10, Episode 4, 3:39 mark), a stranger walks into the scene, and Walter's character scoffs: "Can't you go anywhere these days without being accosted by the homeless?" One of my friends' fathers used to say that "Mexicans prefer to sleep on the ground, so they don't need homes. Rush Limbaugh said so!"
As Oliver's show made clear, however, it is not only those flagrant sociopaths who can engage in the kind of extreme punching down that characterizes our response to homelessness. He showed a clip of a California woman who identified herself as a liberal but who admitted that "I become a little less liberal every time I have to clean up human excrement." Apparently, even though everybody poops, being in a situation where one has been reduced to defecating outside is a moral failure, making humane policy responses less appealing even to self-styled liberals.
It is not, then, only the red hat-wearing "when do we get to start using our guns?" types who are cruel and awful. People have been indecent to other people forever, in ways going far beyond "dressing down the help." Still, lest I be misunderstood, I will state clearly that I would reluctantly but definitely be willing to go back to a situation where people were awful to others in a billion small-to-medium-sized ways. It is, however, worth remembering how much indecency we have always been willing to ignore.
It is indecent that one political party has decided to maximize its perceived political advantage by convincing people to minimize the COVID-19 pandemic and refuse to take vaccines or engage in the most basic mitigation measures. Whether they do it with a snarl on their faces is immaterial. When I was a visiting professor at Wellesley College many years ago, there were students protesting against the college's investment of endowment funds in socially damaging companies. One of my economically advantaged students told me during office hours that the protesters were being "rude." That she said this with a smile and no visible malice does not change what she was doing.
In an academic seminar this past summer, I was discussing the imminent death of democracy, as part of which I tried to describe what it will be like when Republicans are able to disenfranchise enough people to make elections meaningless -- which will necessarily mean that the needs of the many will be ignored even more than before. An African-American colleague commented: "So this is going to be like it was to be Black before the Voting Rights Act -- and to a large degree even after that?" I responded: "Good point. This is like White liberals saying, 'Hey this not being represented thing would suck,' with their Black friends rolling their eyes and saying, 'So, you don't like being politically neutralized, eh? I wonder what that could be like ... ." My colleague responded: "Exactly!"
It is indecent to destroy democracy in general, and it was always indecent to exclude certain people from the benefits of democracy -- especially for the invidious reasons that this country has always done so.
In the end, then, this is not at all merely a labeling exercise or a pedantic disagreement about the definition of a particular word. It is important to understand what it means to be truly, absolutely terrible when discussing or acting on other people's misfortunes. It would be great if we could have a more joyful world, but at this point, we need to be clear about those things that are in a different category of bad. Again, there is no bright line, but the concept of indecency should not be drained of meaning.