You can tell that Election Day is approaching by the rising level of intemperate, rancorous speech. You can't say, "Have a nice day," without someone biting your head off and snapping, "How can you expect me to have a nice day as long as Bush is in the White House?" Don't think about adopting a moderate position - you might lose the floor. Polemical hyperbole and strident venting alone will earn you a ticket to the shouting match that passes for conversation these days.
The point, after all, is to shut your opponent up, not to attempt to understand his point of view. Heap scorn upon those who don't share your prejudices, dismiss their opinions as drivel, ridicule them and ritually slay them with words.
A recent New Yorker profile of Christopher Hitchens offers a case in point. Confronted with a hostile television audience, Hitchens - an intellectual of vast learning and a master of debate - resorted to that refuge of inarticulate, unimaginative boors - "(Expletive) you!" When an acquaintance made a sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, Hitchens foamed at the mouth and denounced Dean as a "raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag : a psycho and a fraud."
Then he turned on his companion and said, "Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No : I have no further interest in any of your opinions : I wouldn't want you on my side. (Expletive) off."
On the other hand, when Hitchens - once a doctrinaire leftist - became a kind of neo-conservative and supporter of the Iraq war, his former friend and colleague Alexander Cockburn vilified him as a "Lying, Self-Serving, Chain-Smoking, Drunken, Opportunistic, Cynical Contrarian." Never mind the validity of Hitchens' opinions or the reasons for his change of heart. Cockburn denounced Hitchens for his fat rear end.
Whatever happened to understatement, to subtlety, to the thrust and parry of finely honed wits? Whatever happened to the art of the elegant insult exemplified by George Bernard Shaw when he offered Winston Churchill two tickets to the opening night of his play and invited him to, "Bring a friend, if you have one." And by Churchill, who replied: "Impossible to come first night. Will come to second night, if you have one."
I myself have apparently been guilty of the ranting, which is so en vogue these days. According to my loved ones, I sometimes fail to listen. I lecture rather than converse. Occasionally, in discussing the issues of the day, I raise my voice to a level that they characterize as "yelling." The word "idiot," which I used to apply exclusively to my dogs, I have been applying to anyone who disagrees with me.
At a dinner party recently, I took an irreverent position on a sensitive, controversial matter. In my zeal to persuade the others at the table that they had fallen into error, I employed stratagems such as rude interruptions, sarcastic asides, whoops of derision, attaching to my antagonists Shakespearean epithets such as "you minimus of hindering knot-grass made : you shallow, beggarly, lily-livered knave : you whoreson, glass-gazing, finical rogue."
A stunned silence at the table gave me the illusion that my eloquence and iron-clad logic had triumphed. My wife had a different interpretation. "You were yelling," she said on the way home. "We'll never be asked out again." In hopes of saving us from a life of lonely exile, she proposed that I wear one of the dog's bark collars on social occasions. When my voice becomes too vociferous, the collar rewards me with a electric shock. Perfectly humane, of course - just sufficient to encourage behavioral modification.
Now, when I'm out among company and a touchy subject comes up, I just sit there in silence with a daft smile on my face. Any temptation to launch a tirade is discouraged by the inevitably of a jolt. Interestingly enough, I'm much happier than before. When I leave a party I no longer regret what I might have said. People seem to like me more now that I agree with everything they say than they did in the days when I snorted at their assertions, contradicted them and silenced them with a roar.
A good bark collar can be bought for less than $100. Wouldn't the world be a better place if bark collars were worn by all?