(Thanks to Andy Lewis for posting this Daily Show clip on my facebook page.)
This brilliantly funny, and wonderfully “equal opportunity” satirical skewering of columnist Froma Harrop, plays on a seemingly almost universal failure to make the distinction between humanity and civility. Before I discuss that in more detail, check it out:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
Harrop clearly was, by most definitions, “uncivil” in her representation of Tea Partiers as “economic terrorists,” but she may not have been unreasonable in her assessment. And while it is uncivil to use such language, if it is used well, as a vehicle to oppose irrationality and bigotry, then it may not only be consistent with a commitment to humanity, but actually mandated by it. (There is a related but not identical discussion in The Basic Political Ideological Grid, in which both the form and substance of discourse combine to define where it falls in an ideological grid, or space.)
(A quick disclaimer: I am not arguing that it was used well in this case, or that it really was a productive use of “uncivil” language. I remain unconvinced one way or the other in this particular instance.)
“Humanity” means applying the best analyses to the most reliable information in service to human welfare, without prejudice, and with passion and commitment. “Civility” means being polite and non-incendiary while doing so. Both are generally worth striving for, but the former is far more important than the latter, and occasionally the former is served by breaching the latter. Harrop’s principal mistake was in presenting herself as an advocate, and presiding over an organization dedicated to advocacy of the latter when in reality she is an advocate of the former and not particularly committed to the latter.
She made several other classic, interrelated mistakes as well: A lack of wit, of humor, and of humility. She wasn’t nimble enough to recognize the inconsistency between her official commitment to “civility,” and her marginal breach of it at the same time. She wasn’t gracious enough to see the humor in that inconsistency. And she wasn’t wise and humble enough to admit that it is a complex and subtle world in which we live, and that striving for these ideals is not the same as attaining them.
Here’s what she could have said to John Oliver: Civility isn’t an absolute value that supersedes all others. To take extreme examples, if a genocide is occurring, I am not bound by the rules of civility to refuse to participate in an effort to stop it by any means necessary, including physical violence directed against the perpetrators. If my country is being invaded by conquerors, I am not bound by the rules of civility not to defend myself against them. Clearly, there are some times, at least at the extremes, when acting “civilly” isn’t necessarily the course of action recommended by a commitment to humanity. This is a lesson that Neville Chamberlain, and all who were counting on his commitment to civility, learned the hard way.
Political discourse and action that is non-violent should never be met with violence, but irrational, self-destructive, or hateful non-violent political movements might reasonably be met with strong non-violent language in service to humanity, even if such language is “uncivil.” If a racist organization preaches racism, I am more concerned with stopping that ideology in its tracks than in avoiding offending those who are preaching that odious doctrine. If I can shame them or their followers, or humiliate them with a forceful articulation of why their ideology is odious, even using metaphors and imagery that might be considered “uncivil,” I would feel very well justified in doing so.
Obviously, Tea Partiers and others in their ideological vicinity would argue that their ideology bears no resemblance to such odious ideologies as racism, and so my analogy is moot. But therein lies the crux of the matter, for I disagree with them, and either of us might be right in our assessment. If I am right, in both my assertion that incivility can sometimes be required by a commitment to reason in service to universal goodwill, and in my assertion that extreme Tea Party ideology (not necessarily all moderate variations of it) is comparable to other odious ideologies of human history, then strong language might be justified, whereas if I am wrong on either of those points then it is not.
We gain by striving to be reasonable people of goodwill, and by encouraging one another to be reasonable people of goodwill, not by being self-righteous about it, or pretending that “we” (whoever “we” might be in the particular context) have gotten it perfectly right while others have gotten it perfectly wrong. The difficulties and challenges of a multitude of human beings with a multitude of ideologies pursuing a multitude of interests are not going to be swept away by any panacea. But the effort can be improved by advocating for certain values, and practicing certain disciplines.
Civility is among these disciplines, but, I would argue, clearly not chief among them. No one who is in reality primarily committed to humanity should claim to be primarily committed to civility, because the two are not identical, and people who confuse them will look, as Harrop did in this interview, foolish when the two are at odds and they choose the one they actually care more about. (As an aside, and in fairness, it looks like the editing of this piece, which was intended as comedy rather than as journalism, was designed to make her look like even more foolish than she may actually have been.)
The lesson is, I think, that such language should be resorted to minimalistically and with restraint, both to avoid error and to preserve its effectiveness. It is not that every “uncivil” utterance is an offense against humanity, but rather that too many uncivil utterances certainly are, and, in any case, make those that aren’t less powerful by diluting them in a flood of similar sounding noise (see Godwin’s Law, Revisited).