Friday, December 3, 2010

The Civility Trap

We all favor civil discourse. We favor good manners, respect, courtesy, and rational deliberation. We all embrace the virtues of moderation, temperance, and adult behavior.

In fact, some of us are so enamored of civility that we routinely trash people who do not agree with us… for not being sufficiently civil.

Civility is easier to preach than to practice. Even the most fervent adepts of civility seem often to be prey to passionate enthusiasm, spontaneous outbursts, and emotional authenticity.

Civility involves discipline. If you can’t restrain yourself because you feel so strongly about something, at least have the good grace not to preach civility.

Now, in response to the success of the Tea Party, and rising from the rubble of what used to be called the Coffee Party, a new group called “No Labels” is about to go public with a manifesto in favor of civil discourse.

The group calls itself, “No Labels,” because it wants to say that people are people, not labels. Nice to see that they have mastered the art of tautology. If that’s the best concept they could come up with, I do not hold out too much hope for their future success.

Launched with the help of notably uncivil types like Joe Scarborough and Michael Bloomberg, the new group will pretend to bridge the partisan divide that apparently is destroying the nation.

For those of who thought that citizens expressed their political preferences civilly when they vote, the new group is here to tell them that their most recent vote fostered incivility.

Michael Bloomberg, when he was not out promoting civil discourse, recently traveled to Hong Kong to denounce the American electorate as a bunch of fools. How else could they have filled the Congress with a bunch of illiterates who do not even have passports.

Given the timing of Bloomberg’s remarks, one can only conclude that he is referring to Republicans.

Civility is easier preached than practiced.

But perhaps people like Bloomberg and his fellow civilists do not really quite understand what civility is.

After all, civility is as civility does. You can preach civility from the pulpit, but if you act like an intemperate autocrat everyone is going to think that you are using civility to advance a more personal and more devious agenda… like a presidential candidacy.

One suspects that this push for civility is an attempt to compromise the success of the Republican party. None of these proponents of civility were denouncing Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats for passing an agenda that they knew the American people did not want.

There is nothing civil about showing disrespect for the will of the American people.

Nor did the civility caucus call out Democrats for refusing to allow congressional Republicans to participate in the legislative process, only to blame them for saying No. 

During the first two years of the Obama presidency our president had exactly one private meeting with the leader of the Republican Senate minority.

Where’s the civility in that? And what did the civility mongers have to say about it?

And where was the civility caucus when those who disagreed with Barack Obama were routinely denounced as ignorant racists?

Do they think that people should seek out a civil middle ground, by compromising the point and accepting that they are half-witted semi-racists?

Again, civility is as civility does. If you are serious about civility, you need, above all else, to set an example of civil behavior.

Already, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal has called out Joe Scarborough for a decidedly uncivil ad hominem (or ad feminam) attack on Sarah Palin. Attacking a person instead of an argument is the core of political incivility. Link here.

Here’s Scarborough’s version of civil discourse? “What man or mouse with a fully functioning human brain and a résumé as thin as Palin’s would flirt with a presidential run?”  Link here.

As it happens, Scarborough is peeved because Sarah Palin responded to former first lady Barbara Bush’s express wish that Palin stay in Alaska.

Barbara Bush has a right to her opinion. And she has a right to express it in piquant prose. But doesn’t Sarah Palin have a right to respond? If she chooses to respond, does that allow Joe Scarborough to fling rhetorical dirt at her, all the while thinking that he is a master of civility?

Perhaps Scarborough would have preferred that Palin take the path that George W. Bush took when he refused to respond to the attacks that were leveled at his presidency.

Even today, Bush insists that it would have been beneath the dignity of his office to respond to the slanders and slurs. Yet, behavior that might be beneath the dignity of the president himself would surely not be beneath the dignity of those who speak on his behalf.

If you do not respond to attacks, don’t you become a political pinata and don’t you risk leading your party to ignominious defeat?

Civility is well and good when both parties to a discussion refrain from personal attacks and behave with proper decorum and respect. Responding to attacks decorously is not the same as not responding at all. The latter promotes incivility because it lets it stand.

Civility does not tell you to submit to  calumny, to act as though it were true. It’s certainly civil to turn the other cheek, but after a while you run out of cheeks and you need to fight back, lest you appear to accept that uncivil discourse contains the truth.

If Scarborough is not the finest example of civil discourse, what about the man who seems to want to use “No Labels” as a means to launch an independent bid for the presidency: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Link here.

When last we saw Mayor Bloomberg exercising civility, he was defending the Ground Zero mosque by telling its detractors to shut up and go away.

He knew better; he understood the Constitution; he was right; no one else had a right to an opinion. If the people of New York and the people of America found the idea of a mosque at Ground Zero to be offensive, then they had merely to submit to the will of Michael Bloomberg and Imam Rauf and let it happen.

But, back to the basic question: Is this “No Label” group using civility to set a trap?

Considering that many of its proponents regularly engage in flagrant uncivil behavior, we must assume that it has another purpose in mind. It might want to create a political base from which Michael Bloomberg can run for president. Or it might want to lure the newly resurgent Republican party into giving back what it gained at the ballot box. For now we cannot know its ultimate goal.

One thing we do know: before jumping on the civility bandwagon, find out who is in the driver’s seat.


woofty said...

A couple of things come to mind. First, by callding themselves the No Label group (party) they are essentially neutering themselves. They are either not willing or are scared of identifying themselves with any thing. Now, maybe this is the objective. From a non-association, they can attack at will, all the while claiming not be, "neutral." Or, as you write, civil. I also expect this so be seen by most people as a veneer to further the liberal PR machine. Since they are also essentailly nothing though, caused by their own wanted definition, I suspect they will amount to little but more noise.

Marsh said...

"Barbara Bush has a right to her opinion. And she has a right to express it in piquant prose. But doesn’t Sarah Palin have a right to respond? If she chooses to respond, does that allow Joe Scarborough to fling rhetorical dirt at her, all the while thinking that he is a master of civility?"

Well, it seems Karl Rove seems to think Palin didn't have the right to respond to Mrs. Bush.

Funny coming from Rove considering that he admits he failed GWB (and the country IMO) when he let lies stand concerning his boss.

And now he thinks Sarah should eat it w/o complaint.

Great piece, Stuart! I always enjoy reading your blog!

Dennis said...

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that those who want civility are the ones least likely to have given it. This seems to hold true for respect, manners, courtesy et al.
These demands for, fill in the blank, almost always come from those who have abused others and are now being pummeled themselves by the very same tactics they used. One cannot state that, "I don't have to compromise because I won." and then expect that when conditions change that those one ignored now have to compromise.
No one should expect to get more than they give no matter the position currently held.