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Civility in politics queries

Gregory I. emails me:

  • Can being “uncivil” be useful for advancing aims we should agree with as moral in contemporary America? Elsewhere or “else-when” perhaps?
  • If yes, then where and how to be “uncivil” effectively?
  • Is engaging in aggressive or what can be read as aggressive social media posting sometimes good, contrary to what we’re usually counseled? (“Aggressive” here not including threats, but stating views in forthright ways with facts, arguments and yes even possibly profanity).
  • Could more exposure to “uncivil” behavior be or be made beneficial overall, primarily by making us all realize we should be more suspicious of our feelings of offense? 
  • Have “political correctness” and what Cass Sunstein called “patriotic correctness” (thank you for this article recommendation on MR) really moved what should be in civil discourse into conversations that can now almost always be counted on being characterized as “uncivil” and thus require us to be rude to address them?

I’ll take them by number.

#1: In the past, not being civil has at times led to the eventual de-platforming of disliked adversaries.  For instance, the tactics of 1960s radicals did indeed draw the attention of the American public to various norms, which eventually the American public decided to find mostly unacceptable.  It is much harder today to be a mainstream representative of racism, outright chauvinism, the Vietnam War, napalm, and so on, with some obvious exceptions.  Not all of the opponents of slavery were civil either, at least not always.

But today?  We’ve already seen big swings toward Trumpism and other forms of backlash, and many of those forces are courting incivility as a noxious brew, fit for their recipes of divisiveness.  And the Left is picking more issues that, whatever you think of them, don’t have as much upside with the American public, such as say bathrooms in North Carolina or the abolition of all profit.  The Left is a lot “less cool” than it likes to think, which militates in favor of civility, if for no other than tactical reasons.  Plus civility is a virtue in its own right, at least at the relevant margin.

#2: If you are looking to be uncivil, look for an issue where history is clearly on your side (predictively as well as normatively), and to that issue devote uncivil people who aren’t much good for anything else, as these days reputations are more permanent than before.  Pick issues that just aren’t getting good attention at all, or in other words shy away from the hot button items in your Twitter feed.  Your choice should seem counterintuitive to a fair number of the people you know, including those on your side.

#3: Social media are almost the worst possible venue for being uncivil.  It’s like pissing into the ocean, and furthermore you often encourage a stronger reaction from the other side.  “Mobilizing a posse” on social media may or may not be effective, but I view that as distinct from being uncivil per se.  Being pointed and specific is often the best way to drum up the posse, and in turn some of the posse members, for better or worse, will end up being uncivil.  If you are reading MR in the first place, very likely there is a better role for you in all of this than being a marginal, uncivil posse member.  Calling for uncivility is in a fundamental way expressing your own low expectations for those you are advising.

But the worst?  Driving a public figure out of a restaurant may seem like fun, but in fact they don’t know at which point you are planning on stopping.  You’re coming pretty close to threatening them with violent aggression, and there are very very few situations where such actions will end up improving the world as a whole.  There is no better venue for politeness than commerce.

#4: When people are uncivil, and organized into groups too, they are stupider.  You too.  That is perhaps the biggest reason to avoid uncivility, no matter how much you think your chosen exception will lead to beneficial outcomes.  Can you not find beneficial paths of influence which do not involve making people stupider?  If not, what does that say about you?

#5: Both the left and the right are major offenders when it comes to both incivility and political correctness in the bad sense.  I don’t quite follow every part of this question, but in closing I’ll suggest some simple rules of thumb for proper civility:

a. Don’t say anything on-line that you wouldn’t say to a person face-to-face.  (And I really do hope this constrains you.)

b. Don’t ever think that an analogy with Nazis justifies your behavior, even if it is your behavior toward…Nazis.

c. Don’t lose your cool.  Always trying to sound more intelligent than those you are arguing against is not a terrible starting point.

d. Don’t deploy what I call “loose adjectives,” the most common one being “stupid,” another being “dangerous.”  You probably write with too many adjectives anyway.

e. Criticize the idea, not the person.  Don’t presume you have such a wonderful sense of the motives of those you disagree with.

f. Learn how to learn from those who offend you.

g. Reexamine your writings and try to roughly measure the ratio of positive sentiments to negative sentiments.  If that number is not ten to one or higher, reassess what you are doing.