I wish I could file this one under “things that don’t need to be spelled out.” Apparently it does.
Attacking public figures’ positions or actions in office is fine. Attacking their children is not.
I’m not referring here to adult children who take active public roles, like Ivanka Trump or Chelsea Clinton. They’ve become public figures in their own right, subject to the same rules as other public figures.
I’m referring here to actual children. Apparently the president of Bethany College, William Jones, received threats to his children, on the grounds that they’re biracial. The oldest is 14. They’re being attacked for existing.
No, no, no, no, no. That is entirely out of bounds.
I know that rules of engagement have changed over time. I’m just old enough to remember when Gary Hart, then a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President, was exposed for adultery. With the benefit of time and distance, it’s easier to understand why he seemed so brazen and tone-deaf; until then, politicians’ dalliances were considered out of bounds unless they involved, say, falling drunkenly into the reflecting pool at the Washington monument. Hart wasn’t the first politician to cheat on a spouse, but he was the first under the new rules. He didn’t know the rules had changed until he found out the hard way.
Donald Trump is trying to redraw boundaries in a different way; for him, sexual dalliances are fair game, but tax returns are private. That’s an unprecedented view for a major party nominee, but not unprecedented in the culture as a whole; I remember noticing in Madonna’s Truth or Dare that she had no problem talking on camera about sex, but she closed the door on the camera when it was time to talk business. And she acted as if the distinction were obvious.
Yes, I just compared Donald Trump to Madonna. You’re welcome, America.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of decrying a complete loss of boundaries, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Instead, I’m seeing a collapse in the consensus of where the boundaries are. Different people have different ideas. And nothing gets people worked up faster than boundary violations.
I remember being jarred several years ago upon meeting a recent transplant from the South. Her first question upon meeting me was “and where do you worship?” In my world, that’s invasive and rude; in her world, it was no weirder than asking “and what do you do?” She noticed my response and recalibrated, and I exhaled and chuckled, but the different notions of boundaries were hard to miss. She meant no offense, I knew that, and we were able to get past the awkward moment, but the sense of shock was palpable.
(Group identities can be more evanescent than that. I knew an Apple fanboy who considered me suspicious for moving promiscuously from Apple to Android and back again. When I mentioned using a chromebook, I thought his eyes would roll back in his head.)
Still, I’d like to think that certain boundaries are still protected by consensus. At the most basic level, let’s leave kids out of political battles. Boundaries may be shifting, but they aren’t gone, and some of them are worth defending. Back off the kids.