Allow us to add our voice to the broad (if not universal) chorus of outrage over the photograph of stand-up comedian Kathy Griffin holding a prop Donald Trump severed head. It is vile, it is tasteless, and it is shameful. And it has been condemned by just about everyone who has seen it, from President Trump to Chelsea Clinton to Ms. Griffin herself — her video apology may be the fastest and most thorough act of contrition witnessed on social media this year, unfolding in a matter of hours Tuesday.
Just as we have lashed out against racist, bigoted, hateful attacks directed at Barack Obama and his family over the last eight years, we believe it is vital to draw a line just as bright for the current occupant of the White House and his family. We can disagree vigorously without resorting to hate speech or hate acts or hate imagery. Ms. Griffin, a "D-List" celebrity by her own estimate, has said she begs for forgiveness. Is her impassioned plea just another attention-getting device? Alas, in the 21st century celebrity culture where notoriety can be made profitable, viewers would be wise to harbor doubts.
Much has been written about the coarsening of the American culture, and so-called "shock art" is often used as a prime example. Practitioners (one uses the term "artist" advisedly here) like to imagine themselves boldly getting under the skin of the complacent, the bourgeois and the hypocritical. But at some point — often rather quickly — the blending of crucifixes and urinals, body paint and taboo subjects turns from avant garde to derivative and old. Severed heads are readily available on "Game of Thrones" re-runs. Political shock-talk is just as commonplace.
It is tempting to look at this elevator of cultural descent and see President Trump vigorously punching the "down" button, but he is far too easy a target. Yes, as both candidate and president he has reduced oratorical standards far beyond his predecessors' most oafish moments — even Trump supporters have generally conceded that point, and it there are any doubters, they must not have Twitter accounts — but society was already headed in that general direction. TV shows, movies and music videos provide a treasure trove of evidence. Howard Stern and Madonna were appalling audiences three decades ago. It just takes a lot more to shock modern sensibilities in 2017 than simulated sex acts or chatting with strippers.
One can't legislate good taste or common sense (although threatening violence or burning crosses is clearly a different matter). Still, Americans can be responsible for their own conduct and expect it of others, whether they be liberal or conservative or something off the charts. We rather like the mantra of the "Choose Civility" movement practiced locally in Howard County but popularized elsewhere as well: Respect, empathy and tolerance. It encourages acknowledging others, assuming the best, being inclusive and, perhaps above all, listening. It is that approach that encourages the full graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy to hear out Vice President Mike Pence rather than simply walk away from his address as some 100 seniors did at the Notre Dame commencement just days earlier.
Last year, a Pew Research Center study found that 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media. If the digital landscape has become a place of extremism and propaganda, fake news, trolls and beheadings, what hope is there that people will be properly informed? That consumers gravitate toward certain fixed point-of-view websites may pose a problem (refusing to listen to differing ideologies fails civility the test, remember?), but at least it's understandable behavior when a pop-up of a Trump noggin dripping in blood could be a click away if one strays from the comfortable path.
So exactly where is the line of decency? It's always moving, that's just the nature of society. But perhaps the most reliable test we've heard from earlier generations is the "mother test," which offers this simple guide: If you would be mortified for your mother to read it, see it or watch it, don't do it.