We live in an age of rude politicians. In the US, Donald Trump has periodically monopolised the headlines since 2015 with his rude and obnoxious behaviour, often showcased via Twitter or at international summits, where he has pushed presidents out of his way and left his counterparts visibly exasperated. His behaviour seems to be incurring an etiquette backlash against his administration: in June 2018, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was publicly asked to leave a restaurant because her work for the Trump administration put her at odds with the restaurant staff.
These incidents, and more besides, have prompted calls for increased civility in politics in the US and elsewhere. But should we really attempt to eradicate rudeness – or does it have an important role to play?
In British politics, for one, there is a long history of politicians being openly rude to each other, including in parliament itself. In the last several years, it has arguably hit new heights (or, depending on your view, depths). In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron was slated by the press for his rudeness – what he himself referred to as “yah-boo style” – during prime minister’s questions.
Cameron was known to deploy every tactic from character assassination (“The truth is he is weak and despicable”, he said to Ed Miliband in 2015) to outright mockery (“If the prime minister is going to have pre-prepared jokes, I think they ought to be a bit better than that one – probably not enough bananas on the menu” – this to Gordon Brown in 2010, mocking his opponent’s dietary choices).
But while Cameron was often castigated for his behaviour, he was far from an outlier, and his behaviour did not occur in a vacuum. The House of Commons’s benches are organised in such a way that confrontation is encouraged, and adversarial style is both encouraged and expected by members of parliament. The demands of political tactics force opposing parliamentarians into a stark choice: circumvent an awkward question or put your opponent on the back foot.
The strategic use of rudeness is a common feature of political discourse around the world. It’s a tool used to contest negative publicity, as in the case of Dan Rather’s 1988 interview with George H. W. Bush, where the then-vice president infamously yelled at the interviewer to dispel his image as a weak leader. Rudeness can also be utilised to attack the “face” or self-image of your adversary, consequently raising your own status: ultimately, a zero sum game.
Rudeness is also a useful way to curb others’ behaviour or challenge their political views with as much force as possible. When used to communicate anger and disapproval, and to harden one’s refusal to cooperate, it’s a useful tool for voters who want to change their representatives’ behaviour.
It can also be a useful release valve for negative emotions. Some researchers suggest that such behaviours aren’t rude when considered in the context of political discourse; it has been argued that “heated discussion” (both face to face and online) should be encouraged to enable voters to engage with politicians, express disagreement and heighten engagement with the political process.
Rudeness affects not just aggressor and victim, but others besides. It subjects victims to stress; it isolates and embarrasses them, and can undermine their performance at work. But bystanders who witness the behaviour can also be adversely affected, experiencing anger and compromised performance. Just witnessing one incident of rudeness in the morning can affect a person for the rest of the day, producing increased sensitivity to rudeness (making them more predisposed to think others are being rude), reduced ability to focus on goals and a desire to avoid interacting with others. These consequences should make people think twice before lashing out.
Another issue is the suggestion that rudeness begets rudeness. Known as the incivility spiral, this idea holds that those who experience rudeness are likely respond in kind. The exchange of slights and insults is then likely to escalate on both sides, potentially leading to aggression or violence. And so what begins as relatively mild rudeness can quickly turn into something highly unpleasant.
This is what’s happening in American politics today. Journalists and politicians are increasingly citing past incidents (say, Trump’s repeated references to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas) as the basis for any rudeness directed towards the administration, including a recent incident where the homeland security secretary was booed out of a Mexican restaurant. The aggressive rhetoric at recent Trump rallies is a sign that things are getting to a new low. Then there are the diplomatic consequences of Trump’s rudeness towards supposed allies, many of whom seem to be running out of patience.
So while rudeness might be a perfectly effective strategy in some adversarial contexts, it’s a dangerous game to play in the public eye. Every rude comment or tweet can incur aggressive retaliation and undermine diplomatic relations – and put citizens everywhere off politics altogether.