Death to Incivility

Please. I kid incivility.

We should be more civil in our intimations of deadly force.

Amid all the angry and confused debate since the Tucson shooting – confusions in personal values and in the terms of the debate – the fairly simple and genuine subject of greatest import actually arose quite clearly at the start.

President Obama gave a fine speech yesterday. He often gives fine speeches. I mean that not as a belittling criticism, as his opponents often do. Skill in rhetoric has been a recognized quality of great leadership since the earliest heights of civilization, and though I have wavered over Obama’s effectiveness in recent months, I still see in him, as do others, the capacity for greatness. But – perhaps inevitably, because of the other requirements of his speech, to console, unite, and inspire – he got that simple subject wrong. I’ll come back to that.

Said Obama,

And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.

So among the messages being taken from the speech is a call for greater civility. Writers and bloggers like James Fallows are engaging their readers in the intellectual exercise of trying to identify guidelines of civil discourse. Nothing wrong with that, though all of life cannot be codified, and people, especially those with poor instincts of decency, will always stumble at the uncertain borders of appropriate behavior. For instance, a reader of Fallows wrote in to suggest,

I would love to see a list of common sense rules (similar to Michael Pollan’s food rules) that serve as good reminders of civil discourse. What would you like to see on such a list? My first one, for example: “Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart.” If we had a set of guidelines that both sides could appeal to, it would be a heck of a lot easier to call out the people that aren’t acting well.

The immediate problem with the reader’s number one rule is the word “never.” Never? Is it not possible that a person might not have “the best interest of Americans at heart”? I think there are people who do not (traitorous spies for foreign nations, for instance, though they can always rationalize, and sometimes do, a higher sense of patriotism). In most cases, however, this will be an extremely subjective judgment, and subjectivity proffered with unwavering conviction as objective truth is what leads to uncivil discourse to begin. We do not wish to be precluded from voicing the truths we perceive, but we need the intellectual and humane judgment to measure the circumstance, to weigh our subjective considerations against objective pronouncement. Rules cannot create this judgment in us. And even when there are rules – that one should not, for instance, use manipulated video footage to manufacture a false charge of racism against a person, Shirley Sherrod, as Andrew Breitbart did, or that once exposed as having done so one should own up to it, as Andrew Breitbart did not – rules will not alter the behavior of those who do not merely in any instance act with incivility, but who are in themselves uncivil.

Considering the subject from a contrary direction, there was a CBS poll the other day that sought to measure the public’s beliefs about Jared Loughner political motivations. In the same poll, the question was asked,

Do you think it is ever justified for citizens to take violent action against the government, or is it never justified?

The responses broken out by political orientation were

Republican 28% yes, 64% no
Democrat 11% yes, 81% no
Independent 11% yes, 81% no

The significantly higher numbers for Republicans caused a stir in some quarters, as have other poll results for Republicans over the past two years. But now, notice this time the presence in the question of the word “ever.” As one twitterer wrote yesterday, if you have a problem with a yes answer to this question, you have a problem with the American Revolution. And that’s true. One suspects that those who answered no did not truly understand the scope of the question. A no ever means we have no right ever to throw off oppressive, tyrannical rule. I do not believe that most American believe anything so nonsensical.

So now I return to my quote from Obama’s speech.

And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.

The words I have now emphasized say that it was not a simple lack of civility that led to the shooting. Obama here could be referring to a number of other factors, which he does mention in the speech – Laughner’s mental health and gun laws. And I emphasize again what I have been saying this week: we should beware of simplistic, either/or arguments that tell us that answers must be unitary and exclusive, that there cannot be several causes simultaneously. However, Obama could be referring to what is the real subject of the political fight that has taken place all week: rhetoric and acts that insinuate or call by implication for violence.

The issue – the issue raised by the events in Tucson and over which people have been arguing all week – it is not civility. It is the rhetoric of violence.

Yes, civility is an issue, too, and it is good to call for more of it. But people have always been uncivil to each other and always will be. They will always be and do all of the things connected with this event. The question is how much of it we will allow to become normalized. How much will we permit to occur without clear and reasoned argument against it and without community censure?

The CBS poll reminds us, if we think carefully about it, that there are times when violence against the government might be justified. If the President of the United States were, indeed, comparable to Hitler, that would call for strong measures. If he were, in truth, a sleeper mole slipped into the country by whatever foreign enemy entity, waiting all these years to be activated, things might have to get messy. Were he truly establishing “death panels” (and secret concentration camps), to terminate the lives of the elderly, our liberty would truly be in jeopardy. Similarly, if the President of the United States were truly, sensibly to be perceived as “evil,” as some people called George W. Bush during his presidency, or if the U.S. were properly categorized, as by Noam Chomsky, as “a leading terrorist state” – well, then, what excuse for not taking up arms to oppose tyranny and really feel the blood of our forbearers course through our veins, instead of all this playacting?

Until such conditions might actually exist, which would mean that the United States was no longer a functioning democracy, however imperfect, such labels and such violent imagery and intimations should be beyond the pale. And when that pale is transgressed, there should be reaction, as there has been this week – not against what Laughner did, but against what the Right has been doing for two years. It does not matter, in the end, if Palin’s talk or Angle’s or damned fools wearing holstered guns to political rallies actually contributed to the Tucson shooting. How would we prove it short of Laughner saying so, and just imagine the defensive denials and rationalizations people would conceive of then. You don’t imagine anyone will ever confess wrong in this, do you?

What matters is that while the Right – the Tea Partiers and their sympathizers – has been so consumed these two years with its entitled sense of outrage and anger, it has been behaving in a manner that has outraged and angered others amongst their fellows. And every time the Right has been criticized for this behavior even those within it who do not engage in it have rationalized and justified it. It has, by this point, even among those on the Right who consider themselves reasonable, but so rationalize, become a distemper of the mind, enabled by partisan blindness, that has moved them beyond all common sense, on a subject that should easily unite everyone in common sense.

If you are conservative and want to insist on your First Amendment right to express your displeasure with me and liberals and Obama and big government and healthcare reform, and you want in your righteous anger to do it as uncivilly as foul temper and mouth drive you to embarrass yourself – I’m down with that. Go for it. Just shut the fuck up with the violence.



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