The hell with authenticity

What we need is more shouty honest tell it like it is guys, right?*

Bernie Sanders’s performance in the last debate before Super Tuesday was a bellowing, boorish mess. The Vermont senator’s signature response when challenged was to pump up the volume, as though persuasiveness were measured in decibels. It was particularly excruciating to watch Pete Buttigieg attempt to inject some facts and reason into the proceedings, only to be interrupted again and again by Sanders’s shouting.

When I expressed dismay to a Democratic friend, he assured me it was just “Bernie being Bernie.” At least Sanders, the argument goes, speaks his mind. He is not scripted. He is true to himself. He may not play by the normal political rules, but he is the kind of outsider who will shake up the establishment.

That Democratic friend needs to watch some videos of Trump being Trump, speaking his mind, not being scripted, being true to himself, not playing by the normal political rules, being an outsider, shaking up the establishment – so that he can remember what a disaster that crap is.

[B]oth men have benefited from a certain definition of political authenticity that allows them — no, encourages them — to be unpleasant, ill-mannered loudmouths. The identification of authenticity with incivility and spontaneity is one of my pet peeves. And now my pet peeve has blossomed into a crisis of democratic values.

It’s one of my pet peeves too (mind you, it’s one of approximately 50 thousand), and you know what else? It’s only men who can convince people this makes sense; women are not allowed to come across as blunt but honest, rude but spontaneous, loud but energetic.

It is worth noting, first, that speaking your mind without filters is not a sign of political authenticity; it usually indicates a basic lack of respect for others. In almost any human interaction other than politics, Sanders’s outbursts on the debate stage would be taken as a sign of general jerkness. For Trump, such gracelessness is a lifestyle. Filtering out the worst of ourselves — demeaning language, crude insults, pushy interruptions — does not hide who we really are. It shows the kind of human beings we want to be.

And more important than that, it avoids causing pain and shame to other people. Demeaning language and crude insults are bad because they wound their targets (and because they encourage other people to do the same thing). First do no harm kind of thing. The demeaning language and crude insults are bad because they wound their targets, and we should want to be the kind of human beings who recoil from doing that.

There is a type of communication that seeks to change minds or clarify important differences. And there is a type of communication intended to establish dominance. The former is essential to self-government. The latter is more appropriate to professional wrestling matches and Trump campaign rallies (but I repeat myself).

Second, being unscripted in politics is not a reliable sign of authenticity. It generally comes from the arrogant and lazy belief that anything that pops in your head is worthy of public utterance. Authentic beliefs in politics emerge from reflection and craft. Ideas and policies are refined through the careful choice of arguments and words.

That belief that anything that pops into your head is worthy of public utterance is way up on my list of pet peeves, and makes me allergic to people who babble incessantly the way Trump does.

In the upside-down world of American politics, Sanders and Trump are given credit by their followers for vices that corrupt democracy. Meanwhile, grace, careful rhetoric, learning and governing skill have few practitioners and few defenders.

Well…Obama did get elected, twice. But then so did Bush.

*Editing to add: I have no idea how shouty Sanders actually was and how he compared to anyone else, I was just interested in the point about authenticity and shoutyness.

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