Take a look at Rep. Andrew Weiner on the Rachel Maddow show, commenting on Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann’s responses to the President’s SOTU Address:
Maybe you appreciate this sort of thing, maybe you don’t. What interests me is that here you have a member of Congress, being interviewed on a major cable outlet in connection with perhaps the most formal occasion on the political calendar. Yet in the course of his remarks, Weiner shifts unself-consciously from standard Democratic talking points to something more like barroom chatter, revealing that Ryan “bummed him out” to the point where he was reaching for a drink and that he thinks Bachmann has plainly lost “contact with the mother ship.” And strangest of all, it doesn’t look like Weiner was trying to give offense—that’s just the way he talks.
Try imagining anything like that coming from a prominent national politician of an earlier generation on national TV. It used to be that, although we suspected that prominent politicians used the same salty language we use to talk politics privately, we expected a little decorum out of them when they spoke publicly. What’s more, we all knew that the applicable rules of decorum varied according to the public context. Any northeastern or midwestern Democratic politician worth his salt, for example, had a different voice for addressing supporters in a union hall (where it wouldn’t have been out of place to call their boss or a Republican politician a “son of a bitch”) than he used to address colleagues on the floor of the House or the media in Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
What rules apply in the context in which Weiner is speaking? Yes, he’s on national TV, but it’s MSNBC, an outlet on which disparaging people like Ryan and Bachmann is de rigueur. In that respect, it’s a little like an old union hall, except that everything Weiner says will be streaming across the internet in a couple of minutes where conservatives, including Ryan and Bachman, can see it. So what level of formality and decorum is required? You got me. By the same token, what rules apply when Sarah Palin posts something on Facebook? Is "don't retreat, reload" appropriate to the context? I couldn't tell you.
And neither could Weiner and Palin because there aren't yet any generally recognized rules of decorum for these contexts. So what are we talking about when we deplore their incivility?