Closing Thoughts on Civility

Since the discussion about civility I began in my last post has turned out very lively, I wanted to point toward some other good thoughts on civility, and to answer some criticisms I’ve received. To that first intention, Corey Robin has two good posts up on how civility is currently playing out in the case of Prof. Salaita; Matt Bruenig also has two posts on civility and the poor; Freddie DeBoer has a great post up as well.

If it feels a little odd that, while civility is such an extremely popular subject to consider at the moment, you’re seeing fewer female authors write on it than male, well — yes, that’s the nature of the beast. Principles of equanimity and grace are usually far more binding upon women than men. Men are always expected to have a little space for rude talk and banter, over brandy and cigars or whatever — women, never. So, one more point for the ‘Victorian stuffiness’ column, when it comes to civility.

But I’d like to keep the focus of the discussion where I began it. I never meant this to be a matter of whether or not it’s good/acceptable to be randomly vulgar. This isn’t about sexting strangers or whatever. This is about the issue of demanding civility in deliberative discourse, wherever that may be. When someone shouts slurs at you for no reason, it’s another thing altogether from someone impugning your character harshly in the course of a debate. That being established, here are some of the criticisms made to me re: the last post, and my responses.

1.) Don’t you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? You’re never going to convince people of the rightness of your position if you make them feel attacked and defensive.

I have no idea if anything I do is remotely persuasive to anyone. I know I have never personally verified that anything I’ve argued has persuaded anyone politically. Sometimes this is because people are proud and don’t want to admit they’ve changed their minds, I’m sure. But I also think it’s rare to find anyone who changes their mind right smack in the course of an argument. Usually people need longer to process than the time allowed for the course of a twitter spat. But for this one, two points of order:

1.A.) Being uncivil doesn’t mean people aren’t listening to your arguments whatsoever. Often, Matt and I argue the exact same things. But Matt is meaner than I am, and totally uninterested in civility. Between the two of us, Matt is understood to be the intellectual powerhouse, and I’m understood to be the nice one. So regardless of how he’s going about what he does, people really do seem to be acknowledging — however grudgingly — that he’s sharp. Meanwhile I, with the same arguments, come off more timid, more uncertain, easier to see as a confused person kind of fumbling around. I don’t mind being seen this way (sometimes it’s true, it’s certainly truer of me than him) but the point remains that uncivility coupled with sharpness can still translate to persuasion as easily as civility coupled with smartness can translate to well-intentioned but ultimately harmless and dismissable banter. There’s just not a clear winner here; people have all kinds of dispositions.

1.B.) But more importantly, in many cases the person you’re arguing against is not the same as the person you’re arguing with. In my last post, I talked about my exchange with the Federalist author who argued we should shame poor children who eat free lunches. When I asked him why he wanted to bully poor children etc., he immediately scoffed and said that wasn’t his argument at all. Of course it was, it’s plainly written. But he never owned up to it, because why would he? What does he have to gain from arguing what his audience of rightwing nutjobs already agrees with? All he needed to do was engage enough to get exposure, and that’s precisely what he did: denied he argued such a thing, tweeted back tiny little “oh calm down” responses, and kept obsessively retweeting every mention of himself. His editor got in on it too, for those sweet pageviews. Point is, they were never at any point arguing, and this isn’t uncommon.

Consider Matt’s “Capitalism Whack-a-Mole” game. The game is this: ask someone why they support capitalism, establish a framework, produce a conclusion with that framework they don’t like, and watch them scuttle to another framework. The mere fact of their scuttling shows the framework commitment is a ruse. All they’re committed to is capitalism itself, and all arguments are just rituals to demonstrate commitment to that ultimate conclusion. There is no chance they will actually concede and change their minds; they’re not really arguing. So why bother in either scenario?

1.B.I.) Because sometimes the point is to demonstrate that [position x] is not in keeping with the qualities of a virtuous person. This is especially true of certain rightwing economic commitments, like libertarianism, which a number of Christians find themselves drawn to ostensibly because such an individualistic, self-sculpting philosophy relies heavily on virtue. But it does not actually create the virtues it relies on, to gloss Michael Gerson. When I’m fully aware my interlocutor has no interest in changing their mind, I still press on with pointing out that they’re a bully, a poor-hater, an enemy of poor children — because it’s worth it to me to demonstrate to anyone looking that this system, which boasts such a noble reliance on virtue, fails to manifest those virtues in its loudest adherents.

1.B.II.) Because if a system’s great boast is its logical impenetrability, that’s where you smack it. If the lure of a system is that it’s a very smart system for very smart people and you should join and flex your Vulcanesque logic, then the right place to tear it open is from that core. That’s Matt’s game with the whack-a-mole. Anytime you’re shredding up a claim to a certain identity, it’s not going to be pretty — but again, for the onlooker, informative.

2.) Doesn’t incivility play to the lowest common denominator? Doesn’t it make discourse more emotional, less rational?

2.A.) Discourse is already emotional. It is rife with assumptions that are produced by little more than moral sentiments. Especially in politics, you can very clearly see when you’re dealing with a matter of sheer pragmatism (where ought we build a water treatment facility?) versus matters of value, which are always already emotional (ought we execute convicted serial murderers?) I have little hope of ever squeezing all the emotion out of discourse. And I wouldn’t want to, anyway. Simple point of order: you can’t tell me to approach everyone, as a Christian, with love — and then tell me not to be emotional in discourse. Doesn’t wash. Nor am I really convinced (per Hume) that you can produce a form of political reason that is devoid of any sentiment. You can make the sentiment more or less visible, and again, the use of that is going to have to do with what kind of argument you’re having: remember, I’m the one who said different arguments in different contexts call for different levels of civility.

2.B.) Your base instincts aren’t necessarily misleading. Nor is appealing to them necessarily wrong. One of my favorite pieces of uncivil writing is the obituary Matt Taibbi wrote for Andrew Breitbart. It opens:

“So Andrew Breitbart is dead. Here’s what I have to say to that, and I’m sure Breitbart himself would have respected this reaction: Good! Fuck him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.”

The whole piece had the effect of making two simultaneous points: first, that one of Breitbart’s redeeming qualities was that he was pretty good at taking what he dished out; second, that his good humor was redeeming insofar as his politics were so horrible there was much to be redeemed. And the obituary is pretty funny. This is a case where incivility humanized what would otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill response to a celebrity death; we all know the kind. It was mean, and it made its point, and it rendered very fleshy and human the best parts of Breitbart, insofar as they tended to accompany the worst. All in all, pretty successful.

Was Taibbi wrong to be rude, wrong to be funny about this? Considering the context, I don’t think so. And I see a lot of cases where a similar dynamic plays out in discourse. Umberto Eco’s Jorge de Burgos hates laughter ostensibly because it’s a base, animal response and undermines strong faith — and yet laughter is often argued to be a component of the most human, robust expressions of faith. All of this is to say, sometimes our base instincts are useful, and oftentimes informative.

3.) Well, that’s not at all what’s meant by civility.

3.1.) Civility is intentionally squishy. This argument is actually in my favor, because it’s a piece of a point I’d intended to make the first time around but decided not to because things were getting too long. (Uhh oops.) Anyway, one of the chief defects of demands for civility is that they rarely elaborate as to what they mean by civility. In fact, it is an ever-expanding circle. Sometimes civility is just a series of add-ons: say whatever you were going to say, but with all due deference, introducing your opponent as your friend and respected partner, shaking hands, calling everything a good question and a good response and a good point even when it’s a heap of junk. This is just pageantry. And on other occasions, civility is a series of subtractions: say what you were going to but with no foul words, nothing personal, nothing that could be construed as snark, nothing offensive…Once you make every possible subtraction and addition, you’re very likely communicating a much different point than you initially wanted to. And once you do say: “My honored associate [Person] is a heinous excuse for an individual,” because that’s precisely what you intended to argue, you’re still going to be accused of incivility.

3.2.) And not all ideas should be treated as though they’re equals. It’s tempting to imagine a Magister Ludi-like scenario where smart people go around all day in fraternal disagreement, catching each other dreamily by the sleeves when they pass in the airy stone colonnade, saying: “Hey, friend, didn’t you mention you’d like to make poor children feel terribly ashamed of themselves for eating free school lunches? You know I’ve often thought that was a favorable notion, but I have found myself lately wondering…” But not all ideas are really so noble, not all ideas even have an ounce of goodness in them, and we do ourselves no good by pretending people who want to shame poor kids are ultimately fine Joes who have just got some odd ideas, and should therefore be treated with the utmost sweetness. You might be a fine Joe in other respects, but when it comes to your ideas about children, you’re a terrible Joe. You will be treated, on this account, as a terrible Joe. I’m not saying I’d not be kind to you outside this discussion, but as a matter of deliberative discourse, your fine Joeness has been found wanting and will be noted as such.

I used to belong to a crowd that was all about being a very open intellectual community. I liked it, but it began to occur to me that our discussions were a lot more like AA meetings than debates: we were so invested in affirming the inherent value in having an idea that we wound up over-affirming people who had terrible ideas, and they persisted in the keeping of these ideas because while they had been shown they were wrong, they had never been made to feel they were bad. I realized then that there’s actually a little danger in the affirm-first, question-later approach.

All this being said, I don’t default to incivility, in part because I’m usually not good at incisive uncivil discourse (even when uncivil, an argument still has to be well done to work); and in part because I just don’t like disappointing people and getting them upset with me. I’m much better at trying to put things clearly and softly because that’s kinda the register I exist in. But I still want to defend other registers for other arguments and subjects, and I hope these reasons have shown why.