High-tech legislators still indulge in Stone Age behavior

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 14, 2011 - 8:53 PM
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Rep. Barb Goodwin

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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It took the might of Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile to launch the Spanish Inquisition back in 1478. State Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vargas, didn't even need to use all 140 characters of her tweet.

Politics, you may have noticed, has changed. And it's stayed remarkably the same.

On Monday, we may have seen one of the more medieval outcomes in this Facebook and Twitter age, an era that encourages quick, emotional reactions over old-fashioned deliberative thought, knee-jerk reaction over interaction.

When Hoffman sent a Twitter message to her followers saying that state Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Fridley, had called people with mental health issues "idiots and imbeciles" during a debate in the Legislature, she could not have expected to be hauled in front of an ethics panel.

Cue the famous Monty Python skit now: But nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The British comedy troupe would be the perfect ensemble to re-enact the hearing, which I viewed over video for nearly five torturous hours Tuesday so you, dear reader, wouldn't have to. Only your government can turn an 80-word tweet into a five-hour ethics hearing, particularly a government in which so many members are either so ideologically rigid or self-interested that they cannot agree on some basic common human values and get the hell out of St. Paul for the summer.

In case you missed the story: Goodwin did indeed use the words "idiots" and "imbeciles," but she clearly was referring to how society used to view people with disabilities. In fact, Goodwin was explaining how far we have come since a time when those labels were either on hospital signs or in statutes.

If you saw Goodwin's speech or watched it later, it's clear she was doing the exact opposite of disparaging people with disabilities, and if you don't see that you'd have to be ... never mind. Hoffman, a freshman, was there. So, she was either not paying attention or she deliberately took Goodwin's remarks out of context in her tweet.

DFLers were livid. Livid! A politician, purposely taking things out of context! Unheard of!

Are you kidding me? Politics used to be the art of compromise, but it has become the art of taking an opponent's argument out of context.

That said, it was wrong. Hoffman should have walked over to Goodwin, said "my bad," and shaken hands. Game over. But personal interaction can be so awkward: Isn't it great technology has instead allowed us to shout our immediate opinions to thousands of people?

Shayla Thiel-Stern, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Communications, makes a good point: "It's not the sort of behavior you could get away with at any other workplace," she said. "I couldn't believe they didn't already have rules in place for use of social media, such as not tweeting from the floor. This will get worse unless they set some guidelines."

To make matters worse, Hoffman put out a press release making the same accusations, even after having plenty of time to review the speech or hey, even make a phone call.

So, taxpayers were treated to five hours of riveting testimony that touched on the history of disability, whether any building actually had the word "imbecile" on it, as Goodwin claimed (one could argue it wouldn't be out of place at a couple of current addresses), whether legislators were becoming "the Thought Police" and other topics sorely off point.

The hearing was at turns painful and vaguely humorous. Just watching politicians sitting around a big conference table continually using the worlds "idiot" and "imbecile" to each other over and over seemed to produce some small pleasure. Then there were the awkward discussions about the medium itself.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, played the adult for much of the hearing and provided a little levity with his lack of sophistication in social media.

"I struggle with this, Twitter-Tweeter thing we have there," he said.

"Anybody who knows me, I get up every morning, roll the stone from the front of my cave and drag my knuckles to work."

Ingebrigtsen noted that his statements had been misstated on social media before, but "my skin is a little thicker than others'," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it wasn't worth its weight in tweet, or Twitter."

Then Ingebrigtsen offered some wisdom that could only come from a knuckle-dragger: Hoffman should probably apologize at some point. He didn't post it on Facebook or send it out on his iPad, he just said it, straight up. The committee agreed and told Hoffman to remove the tweet.

It seemed like a very adult thing to do.

As of Tuesday evening, the tweet was still up.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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