In 2012 Mitt Romney learned a lesson that John McCain learned in 2008: you can’t fight incivility with civility.
When your opponent attacks you, you cannot ignore the attacks and pretend that fighting back is beneath your dignity.
The less you say, the more you pretend to be above it all, the more the attack becomes conventional wisdom. When you fail to respond to an attack the public seems to conclude that the attack has some merit. Or else, that you are pusillanimous.
Obviously, the problem does not just pop up during presidential campaigns. Our public discourse has any real semblance of rational deliberation and has been polluted by constant bullying, name-calling and ridicule.
Most often, by my lights, it seems to be coming from the left. Say the wrong thing about Obama and you will be accused of being a racist. Disagree with the gay agenda and you will be attacked as a bigot who wants to deprive Andrew Sullivan of his constitutional rights. Take issue with feminism and you will be branded a sexist and a misogynist. Oppose a liberal policy and you will be attacked as a liar and a fraud.
Disrespect has become legal tender in American politics and the American media. Holding the wrong opinion will get you shunned.
It almost goes without saying but if your arguments are persuasive, if you have right reason on your side, you do not need to bully people into pretending to agree with you.
On many hot button issues more than a few citizens believe that it’s easier to voice assent, even when you know that you are assenting to nonsense, than to fight back against a maniac.
Most people do not really care very much about the marketplace of ideas anyway. Thus, they see no reason not to go along. It’s better than being attacked by the thought police who roam through the culture these days.
As Republicans learned, to their chagrin, it is not enough to respond with better arguments or even with a better record.
Responding civilly to incivility is a losing game.
This morning Notre Dame President John Jenkins offered some advice about responding to incivility, or better, to bullying.
He begins his op-ed by telling about an incident that happened at Notre Dame when Theodore Hesburgh was president.
Jenkins describes it:
Several decades ago, my predecessor as the president of the University of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, was presented with a dilemma. A Jewish student, after repeated hazing by some kids in his dorm, had left campus and gone home. After thinking it over, Father Hesburgh summoned the perpetrators. "Pack your bags," he told them. "Go find your friend. Either you persuade him to come back to Notre Dame, or you don't come back."
If a university president had done the same thing today, he would doubtless be sued for child abuse. Still, the story is salient. I am tempted to take it as a parable.
Note well: Hesburgh was not trying to persuade the bullies of anything. Nor did he respond to incivility by attempting to understand the problem. He did not sympathize with their unhappy childhoods. He did not call the bullies and the bullied together so they could have a kumbaya moment.
Instead, he threatened the bullies' future. He told them to take back what they had done by persuading their victim that he would never be subjected to their bullying.
Bullies respond to a show of force; they do not respond to persuasion.
To apply the parable to a different context, when President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense he was effectively bullying Israel and bullying Jewish voters.
Well-known Jewish democrats like Ed Koch and Alan Dershowitz have expressed serious misgivings about the Hagel nomination. After all, Hagel has notoriously bashed Israel and has shown excessive sympathy for the Iranian regime and for other Islamic terrorists.
The real question is: will Koch or Dershowitz have the courage that the Jewish Notre Dame student showed? Will either of them respond to a bullying president by walking away from his party?
If the answer is obviously that they will not, then you know why Obame can continue to get away with bullying Jews.
In truth, the Obama record on Israel and Islamic terrorism does not date to 2012. It did not stop either Koch or Dershowitz from supporting Obama’s re-election.
Right now, they should first accept responsibility for supporting Obama, and at least threaten to leave the Democratic party.
Empty words are for nothing when confronting a bully.
Obviously, public debate has been corrupted. Still, this does not prevent us from working to be more civil in our everyday relationships.
Here Jenkins offers us excellent insight into what happens when you want to persuade someone of your point of view by using good ideas and by showing respect.
In Jenkins’ words:
What if, instead of dealing with opponents by demonizing them and distorting their views, we were to take some steps to persuade them? I don't mean to suggest that one could persuade a stalwart partisan to switch parties, but perhaps one could persuade another that a particular policy or a position is "not as bad as you think."
If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can't insult them.
If we earnestly try to persuade, civility takes care of itself.