After President Trump’s most recent tweet storm against the media, several people – including GOP senators – said his behavior was “beneath the dignity of the office.”
On July 1, Trump tweeted that his use of social media was "modern day presidential." A new norm is emerging, lacking in dignity. Trump takes this to a new level. But the modern presidency has lacked dignity since Bill Clinton dropped his pants in the Oval Office.
Dignity is difficult to create, but easy to destroy. The same is true of trust and respect. Dignity inspires confidence and admiration. Shameful behavior undermines credibility and inspires revulsion.
The demise of dignity also afflicts the news media, since Walter Cronkite gave way to Jerry Springer. Consider Mike Brzezinski’s response to Trump’s outrageous attacks against her. She posted an image on Twitter implying that Trump has small hands.
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That sexual euphemism was used by Sen. Marco Rubio against Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump, you’ll remember, badgered him by calling him “little Marco.”
And so it goes. It seems there are no adults left in the country. We are all smaller these days. Our children have no one to look up to.
Dignity is difficult to create, but easy to destroy.
The demise of dignity is linked to a general failure of civility. It is also linked to our inability to distinguish between public and private. Petty arguments and private parts are all on public display.
But dignity requires us to draw a line. The official acts of the office holder should be our focus. The private idiosyncrasies of those officials are really none of our business. In a dignified world, private personality is concealed behind the public persona.
That’s why judges wear robes and we call them “Your Honor.” It is also why cops wear uniforms. And it is why we say “Mr. President” instead of “Hey dude.”
Modern culture rejects that deferential stuff. We are informal and easygoing. We care more about cheap laughs than deferential esteem. Social media encourages thoughtless, reactive crudeness. And it degrades traditional notions of privacy. Dignity is destroyed by speed, stupidity and familiarity.
Some will say this is all good. Presidents and pundits are people, too. They have sex and get mad. Why not stop pretending that they don’t? It seems duplicitous for pundits and politicians to conceal their personal quirks and private opinions.
But the public-private distinction remains important. The First Amendment to the Constitution depends upon it.
You are free to pray in private; but the government is not free to force you to pray. You are free to assemble in public for political purposes; but you cannot trespass on private property for private purposes. You can say things that are highly critical of political figures; but you cannot slander or libel private persons.
When dignity is lacking, we have no reason to trust our leaders, listen to them, or respect them.
And despite our informal culture, we expect professionals to live up to public standards of ethics and excellence. We want journalists, judges and janitors to keep their quirks concealed. What professionals do in private is their own business as long as they do their work for the public good.
Trust depends upon dignity. We trust professionals who clearly serve the public good. Dignified professionals speak carefully. They think critically and apply relevant expertise. They embody the collective wisdom of the institutions they represent. And they place service above self.
When dignity is lacking, we have no reason to trust these people, listen to them, or respect them. Respect must be earned. Once lost, it is not easily regained.
The demise of dignity in the public sphere is a serious problem for our democracy. Many Americans no longer trust our institutions, including government, business and the press. We have come to believe that no one is objective or professional – that everyone is in it for themselves.
Perhaps we are finally learning that public service was always a farce. Perhaps true dignity never existed. Maybe we are simply realizing that the emperor was never wearing any clothes. But the solution is not for everyone to simply drop their pants. A race to the bottom diminishes us all.
The recipe for dignity is simple. Behave according to the expectations of professional service. And always remember that the next generation wants someone to admire.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala