Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri was scandalized by the President's use of the word "bullshitter" in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, both by his claim that children can recognize and call out such a being and the inferred implication that Mitt Romney is such a one. Obama's outburst, for Petri, typifies a Democratic disrespect for Republicans that also found expression in both Obama and Vice President Biden's body language and facial expressions during their debates with their respective challengers. Specifically, she feels that Obama crossed a line by not censoring himself in the interview. She isn't saying that he mustn't think that way of his opponent, only that he shouldn't express the thought in public as brazenly as he did. Petri perceives a failure of civility in the Democrats' rudeness. She explains the value of civility this way: "It's not just respecting the person in the room with you. It's trusting that the audience is intelligent enough to notice who is right without having to strain over the clamor."
That's a clever bit of rhetoric. Petri means that you can't insult your political enemies without insulting the intelligence of the immediate audience or the electorate in general. Out of respect for the electorate, she claims, you should respect your opponents. But this goes too far toward making a classical debate the template for a political campaign, with voters as informed or at least reasoning judges of conflicting arguments rather than as potential tabulae rasae whom candidates compete to educate. Ideally, Petri could argue, we can trust ourselves to know who's right and who's wrong without one candidate claiming that another is a bullshitter or, in Ann Coulter's word, a retard. But can we? Do dedicated Democrats or Republicans really believe that? Each may claim to when it's in their interest to portray the other as patronizing, arrogant elitists. But if each party were compelled to be honest, its adherents would confess to seeing nearly one-half of the American people as dangerously stupid. If so, each should feel an even stronger imperative to change minds as aggressively as possible, at least as far as rhetoric is concerned. Do you find it desperately problematic that nearly one-half the electorate takes hopelessly, destructively stupid positions on important issues? Is respect the answer? Whatever my own bias, I think I can get bipartisan agreement, albeit well short of unanimity, that it is not the answer. There are times when respect only enables complacency, and when what might be needed is a secular equivalent to evangelical invective, when politicians see a duty to warn people that their choices or preferences will damn them and their nation.
On a simpler level, Petri appeals to conventional liberal tolerance, which presumes that all opinions, if not objectively equal, are at least equally entitled to respectful hearings. Not to believe this, it is feared, is to claim a right to suppress dissent. The liberal tendency, depending on context, is to go beyond tolerating dissent to giving it the benefit of the doubt. But tolerance and respect need not be rigidly synonymous. You can concede an idiot's prerogative to run for office while retaining your prerogative to call him an idiot. There may be times when it would be imperative to call him an idiot, as long as you can prove that he is one. If you can prove it, you should be able to affirm the claim in no uncertain terms. Petri's civility would seem not to allow for the possibility that a political candidate is an idiot, or a bullshitter. In our time, such idealism may be regrettably irresponsible. There are worse fates than having our feelings hurt or our intelligence insulted. That may be the difference between civility and civilization.