De Niro and DiNardo: a renewed call for civility in our public discourse
Before it is filed in the archives of memorable award show moments, we’d like to revisit something remarkably bizarre and troubling that happened at the Tony Awards honoring excellence in Broadway theater on June 10. Actor Robert De Niro, assigned to introduce a performance by Bruce Springsteen, strode to the microphone and announced “I’m just going to say one thing,” followed by two words: a vulgarity and the last name of the president of the United States.
The audience, comprised of some of the most creative people on the planet, responded with loud cheers and then, as De Niro raised both fists into the air and repeated the profanity, a standing ovation.
In some ways, the response was more troubling than De Niro’s crudeness. From a theatrical standpoint, it cheapens the next standing ovation any of the artists, their casts, and production teams might receive. Standing ovations in the theater — whether on Broadway or in local community or school productions — are earned by weeks or months of rehearsals followed by exceptional performances of outstanding scripts, music, and choreography. By rising to applaud a garbage phrase that any potty-mouthed teen could type in one second in a social media comment section, the Tony Awards audience — of all audiences — set the lowest of bars for earning an ovation. Shame on you.
More troubling from a societal standpoint, however, is that the raucous endorsement of De Niro’s profanity takes us further from the path of civil discourse which the church continually calls us to walk when debating difficult issues.
Granted, President Donald Trump is also a guilty offender in this area. His frequent name-calling and belittling of those who disagree or challenge him often sounds more like a juvenile bully than the leader of the free world. We say this as a target ourselves. Who could imagine a president calling journalists “the enemy of the American people”?
Robert De Niro, meet Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo.
Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He devoted his very first address last November to a call for civility to return to the public debate.
“We are facing a time that seems more divided than ever,” Cardinal DiNardo acknowledged. “Divisions over health care, conscience protections, immigration and refugees, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, gender ideologies, the meaning of marriage and all the other headlines continue to be hotly debated. But our role continues to be witnessing the Gospel.”
Cardinal DiNardo and the U.S. bishops modeled that witness again last week as they decried forcefully, but civilly, the separation and detention of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. They targeted the practice, not the proponents, with words as strong as “immoral” and “evil.”
Name-calling and profanity might be part of certain play and movie scripts, but they do not witness to the Gospel. As we near Independence Day, we’ll save our ovations for those who work hard to navigate the deep divisions in our nation by building bridges when possible with healing tools starting with mutual respect and civil dialogue.— Thomas J. Dermody