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As if Americans did not need a reminder of how ugly politics can be, comedian Kathy Griffin provided just that when she posed for a photo shoot holding aloft a severed, bloodied mock head of our president, Donald Trump. Griffin was rightfully and swiftly criticized for her decision almost universally across the political spectrum. Griffin herself has since apologized for the disgusting display, but she does have defenders who are attempting to make the issue one of freedom of speech, rather than one of moral acceptability and civility. Yet Griffin and her supporters have become the very thing they have professed to hate — a part of the worst of the current political climate. At that, they represent the very worst of the climate, and this is what must itself be dismantled.

To be sure, politics has never been wholly civil no matter where it has been practiced, including in America. Politics can bring out the best and the worst in ourselves, whether we are elected or pull the lever to elect. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson personally attacked one another through surrogates in writing. Andrew Jackson's political opponents slandered his wife. Abraham Lincoln once so thoroughly berated a political opponent in a debate, he caused the opponent to break down in tears. These men and their supporters respectively established our country, influenced our financial system and ended slavery in America. They were victims of, and instigators and progenitors of political vitriol. Effigies have been hanged and burned, and violence and the threat of violence have not been uncommon in the past, and have flared up in recent years as well. But the trend toward a more civil society has led Americans at large, irrespective of their political leanings, to frown upon such behavior.

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Adams, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln represent only a few instances out of countless others that demonstrate that even good people have their flawed moments — and also demonstrate the level to which modern political discussion had descended when cruel personal attacks are replaced with violent imagery by the very people who insist on civility in discourse. With shining examples like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the level of expectation has been set high and Americans have come to expect exceptional behavior and discourse from not only their leaders, but anyone with a public voice. All Americans must hold themselves to those same exceptional standards.

Anyone who defends violent political imagery as purely an exercise of free speech — or, more specifically, expression — misses the point entirely, and fails a critical test of moral judgment. It was wrong to hang effigies of Barack Obama, and it is wrong to pose with a severed head of Donald Trump. Words and images can incite and inflame, demean our common humanity, and corrode our moral sense of what is acceptable and what is wrong. It is disturbing that anyone should defend Griffin's display under the guise and excuse of speech and expression. It is true that people have a right to speech and expression, but they do not have a right to impose or transpose harm on others. It is true that people have a right to speech and expression, but so, too, do listeners have the right and responsibility to judge what is said or done — and condemn it as needed. Entering the public square means having your voice heard, and being critiqued for it. Whatever leftist endeavor Griffin undertook, she failed miserably. Just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done. Just because something can be done, does not make it right. One cannot expect civil behavior and fail to practice it.

To become personal and uncivil is to lose sight of the greater issues at hand. To become personal and uncivil is to lose the validity of your own position. We know what inappropriate and uncivil behavior is, and we know that no one is perfect. Anyone who enters the public square makes mistakes like anyone else — but their mistakes are made in very public circumstances. The difference is whether such words and behavior are aberrations, or sustained patterns. This is as true among everyday Americans as it is among their public figures, local or national. Griffin has never been a stranger to crudity, and her fiasco with the severed head is an escalation of a pattern. As noted earlier, she has been criticized across the political spectrum. Griffin's defenders need to understand this is not a question of free speech, but a question of wrong behavior on her part. Americans who have come down against her behavior have stood on the side of moral civility, and illustrate the very best of the fabric of our political nature.

Joe Vigliotti is a Taneytown City Councilman.



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