In terms of political debate, we, as a nation, have reached our nadir. When politicians can insult each other, resorting to taunts about the body parts of others, as if they were in middle school, we have reached a new low.
How have we fallen to this level? In many ways, it is a result of a culture that is unfiltered and a culture that has abandoned the fine art of being a lady or a gentleman. As an “unfiltered” culture, we admire the one who is brash, outspoken, who “tells it like it is.”
The only problem of “telling it like it is” is that who is the arbiter of reality? We are always expressing our own view of reality. When we allow our leaders to express themselves in the same manner as “shock jocks” on the radio, then we have a major societal issue in the United States. Likewise, when a presidential debate could be rated PG-13 for lewd innuendo, then we have a major societal crisis.
Where have manners gone? Where has a sense of decorum, both personal and in society gone? Perhaps one of the greatest gentlemen in the history of our Church (and indeed our civilization), John Henry Cardinal Newman can remind us of what a gentleman (and, by extension, what a lady) is:
“Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself… He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.
“He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp saying for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out… He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice.
“If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.
“If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honors the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them.”
Our politicians would be wise to read this and live it out. We, as voters, would be wise to read Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s words and to have our votes reflect on who might best be the leaders who live up to his definition.