Yep, meaningful public discourse is dead.

Yesterday I posted a link to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe acceptance speech on Facebook.

You know, her impassioned plea for basic human decency in publc discourse.

The speech that referred to how “…the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter – someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back.”

The one that concluded, “When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

That one.

In response to my post, a self-confessed conservative groused, “…says a member of the powerful Hollywood elite whom much of America no longer trusts.”

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m the brother of an intellectually disabled woman, but I was irritated. I mean, even if you’re a Trump supporter surely you can’t think the public humiliation of a person’s disability is acceptable. Ever.

So I bit back.

Don’t shoot the messenger, dude. Even if you don’t like Ms Streep, you’ve gotta agree with her stand.

No, my Facebook friend replied, “…it’s hypocritical for Streep to say this when she publicly supports the biggest murderer of disabled babies in America (Planned Parenthood).”

Several others weighed in on the discussion, pretty much making the point that on the topic being discussed (the public mockery of the powerless), Streep was right.

And then something interesting happened. My unhappy Facebook correspondent admitted that he had several relatives with disabilities, including one with Down Syndrome, and his heart would go out to them if they were the object of someone’s mockery.

Did you get that?

He has disabled relatives. His heart goes out to them. But when he hears Meryl Streep criticize Mr Trump for mocking a disabled man, his first reaction is to attack Ms Streep.

What’s with that?

Can you see what’s happening? We are all so blindly and resolutely stuck in our conservative-liberal, right-left, red-blue corners that when a conservative hears a liberal say something he agrees with his first impulse is to undermine her.

When this was pointed out to him, he demurred, “I didn’t reject Streep’s comments – just felt it was a bit rich coming from her. Perhaps I was a bit reactionary.”

Ya think?

Surely, this is a perfect case study in what’s wrong with public discourse today. We don’t engage in a contest of ideas. We attack personalities. We attack each other.


An influential Christian leader responded to Ms Streep’s speech by tweeting, “It would be great if Hollywood celebrities would lecture us on politics more, [said] no one, ever.”  

But Ms Streep’s speech wasn’t as much a lecture on politics as a plea for human decency. She was being rejected, not for her message, but for her status as a Hollywood celebrity.

Of course, Mr Trump laughed it off as coming from “liberal movie people”, only reinforcing my point. 

I’ve seen it again and again on social media. Recently someone shared a quote from one of my books on Facebook only to get a comment like this, “Sounds good, but he preaches a social gospel.”

Aside from what a “social gospel” is and whether I preach it, the commenter actually liked the quote itself but was bound to reject it because it was written by me.

We simply can’t hear each other. We’ve already rejected the messenger, so the message is immaterial.


When a man with disabled relatives hears a rousing defense of disabled people and rejects it because it was presented by a liberal or directed at Donald Trump, we can be pretty sure that meaningful public discourse is stone cold motherless dead.   




POSTSCRIPT: The commentator on the original Facebook discussion has contacted me to clarify some points he made.  It was not his intent to reject the content of Meryl Streep’s speech and admitted that his rushed and poorly written reply was interpreted as saying her speech was not justified rather than intending to say that Donald Trump’s mocking of disabled people was not justified. He also agrees that public discourse is at a low point, and desires more generous and civil discussion especially if it challenges our preconceptions, assumptions and biases

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37 thoughts on “Yep, meaningful public discourse is dead.

  1. Brilliant, Mike. Thanks.

    1. I am just going to admit when I see conservatives doing the whole, “Wow, we have to try and put down the vitriol and be humans here”. All I can think is the precedent set by blindly blocking everything Obama did isn’t really one Republicans are hoping anyone else will do, and so hoping they will be treated better than they treat other people. Donald Trumpn is your guy, because that IS what the Republican Party IS.

  2. Right, when a “liberal movie [person]” says something reasonable we should dismiss it outright citing the source. If “they” say it then the opposite must be true. That’s how modern conservatism and American Christianity has become so warped as to be unrecognizable when stood up next to the real things.

    1. And there are many American Christians who agree 100% with Meryl, and find the President-elect, and many Republican positions offensive.

  3. Yep, meaningful public discourse is definitely dead. Especially when one party cannot conceive of the possibility of being mistaken or wrong and therefore perceives disagreement as nonsense.

  4. Throughout history, humans have vacillated between ridiculing the disabled and pitying them. Only recently have we accepted them as people that we should respect and not denigrate. Donald Trump is a throwback, and his message is not only outdated, but flies in the face of progress. If our public discourse depends on the standard set by Trump, it will take a long time to recover, but I trust that we will, some day.

  5. I love how the people who want to return to so-called “real America” where people like them are in charge accuse the rest of us as being elitist. Projection, maybe?

  6. The reality is Trump wasn’t mocking his disability, only his flip flooping on the issues. The media used a still image to make it appear Trump was mocking his disability.

    Number one issue is that we are more concerned about our own outrage than we are with the facts. Trump may be a jerk, but he didn’t mock the man’s disability.

    1. That should say flopping.

      1. How can you possibly say he didn’t mock the disabled man? It was not a still photo, it was a video with sound that included exactly what Trump said. No matter what you think of anyone, I don’t see how you can say the video evidence of the event does not exisct.

        1. Common sense would dictate that if he was mocking the disability, the wrist would be ridged in the angled position. Instead it’s flopping. Second, it’s doubtful that Trump remembered who this was, even though he interviewed him often. Lots of people interviewed Trump often.

          Yes, Trump mocked the reporter, but for his opinion and not his disability. I’m not saying Trump is a nice guy, but sometimes we stretch to make him evil so we can condemn him. Flopping your hands is not a caricature of someone with ridged joints in his wrists. It’s more of seeing what we want.

          It was still dumb on Trump’s part.

          1. Ask 100 kids what he was doing. They’ll tell you, they have no reason to make excuses for the man.

            Also ‘a nice guy’? You must have missed large chunks of the news cycle at some point. Or do you mean ‘a nice guy cause he represents my fears and insecurities, oh he’s not attacking me directly’?

          2. Don’t worry Catherine. Dan is an expert on the science of mocking people with disabilities and can confirm by the angle of Trump’s wrist that he in fact was not mocking the person’s disability. Its all good 🙂

          3. Russell,

            One thing that might help with discourse is to comprehend what others are saying. Reread Dan’s post. He did NOT say Trump is a nice guy.

          4. So it’s not mocking because his technique was off? I call bullshit.

        2. From what I have seen, Trump has used this same gesture when discussing the frustration of other people who are not disabled. As a result, many see this as not mocking. However, as the sister of a disabled man who tends to use this very same gesture, I find it in very poor taste, whether intended or not. Frankly, with the number of falsehoods that spring from the mouth of Trump, I don’t buy his story that he did not intend to mock the reporter. By virtue of his imitation of the man’s voice alone, he is mocking him.

      2. Glad you caught your misspelling ,.lol. Some grammer cop would have tried to correct you ..yeah we’re all about perfection

        1. That’s “grammar”, not “grammer”. And spelling is not grammar, so that would be two mistakes.

          Good day!

          1. You’re the best Scott, thanks for that!!

    2. That’s right, the media put the Trump video with an image of the reporter. Not related at all. I’m not a Trump supported at all, but this kind of false reporting needs to stop… From both sides. But I get Streep’s message and fully agree with it: disrespect breeds disrespect, and immoral people will use leadership examples to justify immoral words and actions. THIS is what frustrates me most about Trump. Leading a nation with an immature attitude.

    3. Can’t stand trump but think dan makes a good point. Wrist angle analysis aside I think the media may have pushed this to be something it’s not.

      I was outraged when I heard about the incident (my son has a disability) but when i viewed the video I was not convinced he was imitating a disabled person.

      Regardless, Trumps policy, words and actions repeatedly dehumanise and marginalise those who have little power.

      If the social gospel is a gospel that suggests that we empower the “weakest” members of society and disempower those with the most – then bring on the social gospel.

    4. So you haven’t actually seen the VIDEO which has been broadcast on various forms of media over the past several months which clearly demonstrates Trump’s physical and verbal mocking of a disabled person, to which Meryl Streep refers?

      1. I’ve seen several videos of Trump using the same gestures about many other individuals. He was mocking the man, but not for his disability.

        1. So he was simulating some type of palsy-like disability to mock someone and ACCIDENTALLY just so happened to mock a disabled man, with that simulation?

          What you are saying is, it’s ok he mocked a disability and it was just accidental he mocked a disabled person?

          You can see why even in the BEST case scenario you describe, it was bigly douchy.

          1. I’m not saying he isn’t a jerk. I’m not saying he had good intentions. I’m saying he was flopping his hands, so for a moment he had the same position as the man with the disability, but it was unintentional. I think it’s sad that it’s so easy to ascribe motive because we think we can judge his heart, but if he were to prescribe our motive, we would be engaged.

  7. Mike, Thank you for being a voice of sanity and Godly reason in this modern wilderness of hate and sectarianism.

  8. “We simply can’t hear each other. We’ve already rejected the messenger, so the message is immaterial.”

    Straight away this reminded me of how the world treats Jesus.

  9. Thank you very much. As someone with multiple disabilities as a result of a chromosomal disease, I am thrilled that Ms Streep used her time and public stage to talk about decency in public discourse. I have viewed the video of Mr. Trump’s comment and he was definitely mocking the reporter’s disability. He can say otherwise as much as he wants and it will nevertheless true. He does not want to take responsibility for doing something horrendous, so he continues to prevaricate and dismiss. That is not the way to be a leader. That is not the way to have proper public discourse.

  10. Timely reminder, thank you, all too often we judge before we listen.

  11. As the aforementioned “conservative” in Mike’s article, I’ll make the following comments: 1) I was primarily making an observation and stating why many people find Streep’s comments hypocritical, and 2) I don’t support Trump but understand a little bit why they do. In a nutshell, I should’ve elaborated on these thoughts more clearly in the initial post rather than make a provocative one-liner comment. Incidentally you’re drawing a long bow to publicly state that I heartlessly rejected the contents of Streep’s comments altogether. But many will because of her context.

    In the meantime perhaps all of us (myself included) should go back and read Matthew 7:1-5 and James 3 before making any comment publicly on social media…

  12. I wrote on Meryl’s Speech here
    Part of the problem isn’t that she is wrong or right it is what she is doing in expressing it

  13. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I read them all and appreciate the feedback. Please consider subscribing to my blog so you can be notified of future posts. The link is on the right at the beginning of the post.

  14. Unfortunately dialogue requires that the two parties agree on a basic reality. When one side traffics in demonstrably provably false statements then digs in their heels and doubles down when offered empirical evidence that they are incorrect, there’s not much hope for reasonable discourse.

    1. No kidding! Yesterday I visited a conservative Trump-supporters page and walked into a whole nuther universe. There were postings and videos and comments that were polar opposite of the stuff on my wall and those of my friends. That Trump supporter is also a friend but I unfollowed him long ago because of the vitriol he posted. And now I see how very far apart we are …. I can’t imagine speaking to him again knowing what I know about his opinions. And I’ve known him and his wife since 1981.

  15. Well highlighted. I recently had a Facebook discussion about my faith with a relative who I also regard as a friend. I was a bit taken aback with the way he initiated his response to my post. He began in a slightly demeaning manner, which is not that unusual for discourse between a follower of Jesus and a professing atheist, but the tone changed dramatically when I called out his attitude. After that were able to have a decent, respectable discussion and somewhat harmonious disagreement.

  16. This reminds me of the kind of friendship I had with someone I met at University a long time ago. We spent a good deal of time discussing theology, ideas and values … we were both asking a lot of questions. And although our conversations occasionally got heated, they stayed on the subject at hand. What was interesting to me and at times amusing, was how onlookers assumed that we “must hate each other’s guts!” when actually, we had and still have a lot of respect for each other.

    We both understand that exploring a subject from different points of view is healthy … after each discussion we go away and think about what was said. Really think about it. Feel it. Reflect on it some more. Let’s face it: life IS complex. That is, unless you subscribe to a predetermined dogma that allows for only one interpretation and application, regardless of perspective or circumstance.

    My friend and I are not slow in putting our thoughts out where they can be seen and responded to. Yes, sometimes we have strong reactions to each other, however I don’t recall ever thinking any less of my friend in the process and never has he given me the impression that he thinks me to be inferior. Judgments like these do not have a place in our friendship. We value each other because our dialogue is always an invitation to expand the mind’s capacity for truth, and more importantly, our heart’s capacity for love: a project that has no end date!

    1. I am glad someone said this..I hope i would never toss off a 20+ year friendship because their opinion differed from mine. I appreciate exploring another way of looking at something and friends that are willing are the best source for airing our differences and possibly changing of hearts and minds.

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