Rights, Responsiblity and Rhetoric

Citizens in a free society also have an obligation to respect the opinions of others. A federal employee also represents our government and his agency in public and should act accordingly.

America has been fortunate through much of our relatively short existence as a nation.

We are known for political stability and our citizens being able to engage in free speech. Most Americans are proud of both traits.

Society is changing. In part, these changes may be due to new technology. Before the arrival of the Internet, anyone could write a letter to the editor of a local paper and rant and rave about a personal cause. The editor screened the letters and printed those that were the best and screened out the kooks and nuts or advocated violence against public officials. We had free speech; finding a place to express it could be a problem.

And anyone who goes to movies on a regular basis, or sees ads for computer games our kids buy and use, probably can’t help but notice that the products we produce and sell often portray America as a coarse, violent society that places no value on respect for others. (See, for example, the new hit movie Sin City.)

With the Internet, anyone can publish views on cultural or political issues. There is no screening. And it doesn’t take long for those with simliar views to find each other.

The result is small communities with similar interests talking to one another and enforcing strongly held beliefs. There is obviously nothing wrong with that but, at the same time, there is a trend in America to be less tolerant of others who do not have the same views.

A group of people banding together based on similar ideology often leads to reinforcing extreme ideas. Anyone who doesn’t agree with others in the group is wrong and can be quickly accused of unorthodox thinking worthy of labels along the lines of "idiot," "moron," "Nazi," "racist," etc. Any opposing ideas are quickly driven out of the group.

In a country with the political stability and economic prosperity we have enjoyed in the United States, our political campaigns are venomous. So-called cultural "stars" comparing President Bush to the leader of Nazi Germany or the sale of t-shirts advocating assassination are available for anyone with a few dollars. These don’t add to quality of political debate but are capable of stirring strong emotions and unpredictable responses.

The tactic is not confined to one side of the political spectrum. A few short years ago, political opponents of Bill Clinton speculating that he was a murderer were engaging in similar inflammatory rhetoric.

The attacks are now going down the food chain and opponents of any political figure appear to have little reluctance to throw labels or accusations designed to stir hatred or at least support for an opposing view.

This type of rabid rhetoric is usually a substitute for substantive ideas and genuine debate. It is easier to create an image with labels without regard to truth or accuracy and to inflame emotions rather than listen to arguments from others’ side of an issue. Their tone and substance denigrates all of us when wild accusations fly around the electronic media (and quickly find their way into print media).

As a federal employee, I always believed I had an obligation to represent the executive branch of government when in public. No one was going to mistake a young, GS-7 personnel specialist with a political appointee or senior executive; but having a job with the federal goverment conferred some status among family members and with friends. I knew that those who did not work for the government tend to lump everyone into the same pool. If I dressed like a slob and if my conduct or speech was a disgrace to my employer, it was a negative reflection on my colleagues and the government that represents all Americans. That is still my personal view.

FedSmith.com provides a forum for all readers. Virtually all of our readers are current or retired federal employees (or some who would love to be a federal employee).

I confess it is a frightening thought to see radical, irresponsble comments coming from readers who have an obligation to represent their agency and their government. The comments are anonymous so we do not know what job a person has in government or if a reader is who he purports to be.

But we do receive comments from readers that can, at best, be called "intemperate." Referring to fellow federal employees as morons, idiots, Nazis, or similar terms does not advance any point of view, other than painting the writer as a person who, in a perfect world, would not be employed by Uncle Sam. Comments like these from federal employees is a jolting experience when considering these are from people with important responsibities for all Americans whether it is auditing tax returns, directing air traffic, advancing America’s space program, protecting our national forests or any of the other weighty responsibilities conferred on our federal government.

We screen comments posted by our readers. Most comments are posted. Some comments are excellent, well thought out and provide a point of view that will have an impact on others. We post the comments as they are written including typos, incorrect grammar or ideas that our reviewer may consider naive or ill-conceived. We take no credit or blame for the quality of the presentation or the quality (or lack thereof) in the comments. We do automatically discard any we consider disrepectful of others or just inappropriate for a professional discussion.

FedSmith.com also routinely receives comments from readers asking why we "always" present a "liberal" or "conservative" point of view. Sometimes the contradictory accusatory comments are sent in response to the same article.

We don’t try to present all sides or arguments of all issues. We do try to provide articles to contribute to the quality of a discussion or debate or understanding of issues.

We also ask our readers to do the same. You may not agree with my philosophy that each reader employed by Uncle Sam is a public representative of his government and agency. But all of us can be thankful to live in a country where we have the right to express ourselves and we enjoy political and social stability unknown to most people on Earth. At a minimum, this freedom also has the obligation to respect the opinions of others and to accord others the public respect they deserve.

As usual, you are free to post your comments at the end of this article, subject to the usual restrictions.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47