Thursday, September 17, 2009

Civility and Its Enemies

Free is not short for free-for-all. You cannot have a free and open debate without decorum and civility.

While we tolerate boorish behavior, it would be foolish to say that it contributes to the debate. Everyone has a constitutional right to throw tantrums, but democratic deliberation is not advanced when someone simply lets fly.

Ever since David Brooks attacked the current wave of incivility a few days ago, some of its lovers have stepped forth to defend it. To my surprise. See my previous post here.

Someone named Kerry Howley finds nothing very wrong with Kanye West's violation of Taylor Swift's moment or with Joe Wilson's outburst. Link here.

Howley is more worried that Brooks and others of his ilk are trying to lead us back to the bad old days when people showed "deference to authority." (Would you say that Kanye West was rebelling against authority?)

According to Howley, those who are rude and crude are simply expressing their individuality. She stopped short of calling it "a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," but she clearly does not understand the difference between freedom and anarchy.

To Howley's mind we should just suck it up. If we do not, she declares, in a poorly disguised appeal to our inner machismo, we are demonstrating: "a pathetic inability to tolerate the meekest of incivilities."

But, was Kanye West merely engaging a meek incivility? Was his invasion of Taylor Swift's space, his hijacking of her moment the same as arriving late for a meeting, forgetting to send a thank-you note, or using the wrong fork?

Compare West to Rick Lazio. While debating Hillary Clinton during their Senate campaign in 2000 Lazio walked across the stage and invaded Clinton's space to hand her a sheaf of papers. His was not the meekest of incivilities; it was a threatening gesture. Everyone with any sense understood that Lazio had thereby sunk his campaign.

Beyond that, is calling someone a liar just another meek incivility? Is attacking someone's integrity and reputation merely an impolite gesture, roughly equivalent to being late for a meeting?

As Kathleen Parker reminds us, such an attack on a person's character used to be, literally, fighting words. In the early days of the Republic, such insults were often resolved through duels. Link here.

Thankfully, we have gotten beyond dueling, but we should not have gotten beyond the duty to defend our reputations.

By labeling this a meek incivility Howley is failing to recognize the importance of reputation. For someone who identifies himself as a member of a community, loss of reputation is a grievous harm.

Those who identify themselves as autonomous human units, pure individuals, do not very much care very much what other people think. Rather than glorify such an attitude, we should understand it as a symptom.

Being a perfectly autonomous individual, being perfectly disconnected from others, not caring at all about your place in a group... these will make you feel like an outcast and a pariah. Such feelings are bad for your health.

To keep things in perspective, we must note that many of those who have taken the greatest umbrage over Rep. Wilson's slur spent the better part of the last few years calling George Bush a liar. Some of those accusations were made on the floor of the House of Representatives.

In fact, the phrase "Bush lies" became a mantra for the Democratic party, to the point where everyone assumes that it expresses a basic truth.

Wasn't all the name-calling and defamation rather uncivil. It was politically effective, but it was not dissent and it did not involve anything resembling civil discourse.

So, while I consider it quite proper that Joe Wilson apologize for his outburst, I would add that those who have worked themselves into a lather because he has not apologized with sufficient sincerity should understand that a forced apology can never really be sincere.

Besides, the Democrats who think that Wilson should apologize might well look within their own ranks and consider apologizing for their own violent and vitriolic attacks on George Bush.

If they did, they would be setting a good example of civil behavior, and we would all be better for it.

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