I realize that I may be reading a bit too much into this exchange; off-the-cuff remarks rarely hold up well to scrutiny no matter who utters them. But to me, the phrase of President Obama's which I put in bold print illustrates something that has long troubled me about Americans and our cult of self-esteem.
President Obama came face-to-face with the Tea Party last night in Iowa, clashing with a member during and after a town hall last night.
Ryan Rhodes, a group leader in the Hawkeye State, stood up and shouted a question during a town hall, asking the president how he can call for more civility when "your vice president is calling people like me, a Tea Party member, a 'terrorist.'" [...]
After calling another person, Obama circled back to address Rhodes' question: "First of all, in fairness to this gentleman who raised a question, I absolutely agree that everybody needs to try to tone down the rhetoric."Now, in fairness, since I've been called a socialist who wasn't born in this country, who is destroying America and taking away its freedoms because I passed a health care bill, I'm all for lowering the rhetoric." [Emphasis added--E.M.]
The president seems to be saying that the rhetoric which criticizes him for passing a health care bill (and not just any health care bill; Obamacare has thus far not fared entirely well in federal courts and may, indeed, represent a legislative attempt to confiscate some American freedoms like the freedom not to be forced to purchase insurance, etc.) is the exact same thing as rhetoric which claims that he was born outside of this country or that he is a socialist. In other words, the president's own rhetoric here seems to imply that legitimate criticisms of his policies and agenda, of his ideas, that is, is somehow no different from illegitimate or baseless criticism of him personally.
I will say again: it may simply be an unfortunate turn of an off-the-cuff phrase. But I noticed it because I've noticed similar things quite a lot from people of our generation and the generations younger than both President Obama and me: there is a strong tendency on the part of many Americans to think that saying "I think you're wrong about this, and here's why," is exactly the same thing as saying "I think you're a fuddy-duddy poopy-head and your mother dresses you funny."
Here on this blog, I've always had a fairly open comment policy. I don't mind at all civil disagreement with my ideas, even when that disagreement is strongly phrased. This means, sometimes, that the comment boxes are a turn-off to people who dislike that sort of thing, especially when a commenter seems to be running off on a tangent in order to showcase his or her general disagreement with me, with religious believers generally or with conservatives generally, and so on. Still, I think it's better to let people have their say, so long as we don't drift too far off-topic and nobody starts lobbing personal attack firebombs in the direction of nice commenters who are minding their own business. Letting people have their say tends to lead to conversation, and conversation tends to promote understanding--even if sometimes that understanding and feeling of fellowship is limited, as it will likely be, to patchy stretches of common ground.
But there are some other blogs (and I'm not naming any, because truthfully I'm not thinking of any specific blog here) where strong disagreement is considered an attack, and where telling someone you think they may be wrong about something is a hurtful jab intended to damage that person's fragile, delicate ego and glass-spiderweb of self-esteem.
If this sort of thing were limited to blogs, I suppose it wouldn't matter much. But it's not. I've experienced it in real life, too, as I'm sure some of you have: the immediate harrumphing and subject-changing that can occur the moment a conversation drifts into potentially troubled waters. Sure, there are times when it's best not to wade into controversy: times when the number of little pitchers with big ears is far greater than that of adults, perhaps, or when groups of people who already disagree radically and strongly with each other have gathered for some reason and are firmly committed to a peaceful and tranquil experience (such as a wedding, a family Thanksgiving dinner, or a cease-fire negotiation). But other times it seems as though the average American has become almost pathologically afraid of being disagreed with, as though having someone disagree with your ideas is like having someone punch you in the face and laugh at you while you're falling to the ground.
Are we really that dainty? Have we really bought into the notion that all negativity and criticism are bad, that challenging each other to defend our ideas or positions is an act of hostility, that saying "You're wrong!" is just like saying "You're a brainless twit who would have to reach up to grab hold of stupidity!" in terms of its effect on our self-esteem?
I certainly hope not. But I do think that a couple of generations of misguided educational theories have contributed toward making self-esteem a sort of false god. And like other cults that worship false gods, the cult of self-esteem is far more brittle and easily damaged than most people realize.