Out of Order

I have watched closely over the past week as the final moments of legislative process led to the passing of a new health care bill.  If you have hope that what I’m about to say will enlighten you whether or not this bill is a good one, I’m going to disappoint you.

Instead, I want to turn your attention to our growing adoption of misbehavior as a path of choice in public conversations.  I am disappointed in the behavior of our congressman from the great State of Texas who shouted his thoughts about the health care bill (“It’s a baby killer!”) during the address of his colleague from Michigan.

Does he have a right to make such statements?  Yes, he has the constitutional right of free speech.  My concern is that he chose to level those remarks at a time that violated the rules of conduct of the House of Representatives.  It simply wasn’t his time to speak.  The news media reports that he has made a public apology — seemingly because his shout was initially heard as a personal attack on the other representative.  At this time, however, he refuses to apologize on the House floor for his actions.

Having watched C-SPAN, I know that his behavior was not different from many on both sides of the aisle.  Nothing in me tells me that others breaking the rules makes bad behavior permissible.  I believe that he should apologize for breaking with decorum.

Then, yesterday at the festivities surrounding the signing of the bill, our Vice President introduces the President and as he moves aside, leans forward and, in a stage whisper loud enough for the microphones to pick up, tells the President that “This is a big deal!”  At least that was the meaty part of his comment.  He also chose to use an adjective that rarely meets the boundaries of free speech — an expletive that divides movies suitable for our children from those that are not.  A word that does often fit inside the definition of “fighting words.”  And fighting words do not always carry constitutional protection.

Now, you and I both know that language is used all of the time that some of us would consider inappropriate and, yes, even sinful.  You could also argue that “colorful” speech has edged its way into our everyday lives and we should simply acquiesce.  After all, words are just words, right?

I saw further evidence of this on a major television network this morning.  In reporting on the incident with the Vice President and looking at other “open mic” gaffs, a prominent news anchor opined that some are worse than others and “we all know that the Vice President’s language” was a result of his exuberance in the moment.  Later in that same program, a guest expert on health care was asked to comment on a certain health recommendation.  She, to the laughter of that same news anchor and everyone on the set, said, “I want to join the Vice President’s club.  Give me a break!”  She paused, of course, to indicate where in the sentence she would insert that same expletive.

I’m in the minority on this issue, I suppose.  However, from my experience at my mediation table, people make real progress toward resolution and reconciliation when they make the choice to follow a code of civil behavior.  In fact, I can never remember a single time when misbehavior did anything but escalate the conflict.

So, Congressman, Vice President, news anchor person and today’s expert on health care, let me just say that your choice of words and behavior have just guaranteed that those who have even a slight disagreement with you are not likely to listen to anything else you have to say.

Simply put, you are out of order.  If you seriously want collaboration, resolution, and reconciliation, make the first move back to civility.