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(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:

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Civil Disservice
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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).

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  • ertdfg:

    Ah yes, the “it’s justified because they were acting like terrorists” argument.

    Lets see, as I recall there were two threats made during the debt ceiling debate.

    One was the Tea Party demanding drastic cuts or the debt ceiling wouldn’t be raised… and the debt ceiling was raised, and the drastic cuts weren’t required. Not much of a threat if you’re willing to negotiate it away.

    The second you might not remember…

    Obama threatens a veto on any debt-ceiling limit that wasn’t projected to get him through 2012… and he held this veto threat to the last day; and stated he was willing to see a default if his demand wasn’t met.

    But this wasn’t economic terrorism… I think I see the rule.

    Threaten for what you see as the good of the nation and fiscal responsibility, but be willing to negotiate? Terrorism.

    Make the same threat for personal and partisan gain, and refuse any negotiation? Noble leadership.

    Is that correct? Or is is more of a double standard where only conservatives can do bad things? Feel free to clarify why the Tea Party are terrorists and Obama is a great and noble leader for his actions.

    Heck even be uncivil if necessary; somehow I doubt you’ll be able to be rational, logical, or reasonable… so calling names and throwing insults may be all you have left.

  • First, I didn’t call anyone “an economic terrorist,” though I did indicate that I think it may be a reasonable assessment. The difference between those two is that it’s not a phrase I would have chosen, but one that I’m commenting on now that it’s out there and a topic of discussion.

    Second, other than your last paragraph, your comment is a welcome contribution to a useful dialogue. I hope you’ll continue to post and comment, but I also hope that you’ll refrain in the future from gratuitous and counterproductive ad hominem remarks about me or anyone else who may choose to post or comment here. Feel free, on the other hand, to critique any ideology, any analysis, any perspective, or any policy orientation, on the basis of how well it does or doesn’t serve humanity (see “About Colorado Confluence” linked to in the pages box on the left margin for these guidelines).

    Third, this particular post of mine wasn’t about the debt-ceiling debate (though the implicit commentary about the debt-ceiling debate is undeniable, and so discussion about it is a relevant sub-topic). I wrote this post to discuss the differences between a commitment to humanity and a commitment to civility, despite there being large areas of overlap, using this example as a launching point. Personally, I would have preferred that to remain the focus, but I’ll grant that conversations take on a life of their own, and as long as contributions are thoughtful, productive, and not belligerent, they will always be welcome, whether I agree with them or not.

    Fourth, the issue is not the presence or absence of a threat: Threats are an inevitable part of our formal social institutional landscape, made not just as a part of political bargaining, but also implicitly as a cornerstone of the rule of law (e.g., “obey the law or go to jail”). The problem in this case was that the Tea Party was threatening what virtually every economic analyst considered to be a catastrophically self-destructive course of action in order to obtain an economically self-destructive capitulation. Even conservative economists (such as Alan Greenspan) and the most highly respected free-market advocate magazine in the world (The Economist) condemned what the Tea Party Congressional delegation was doing, the latter calling it “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical.”

    And, indeed, the Tea Party’s actions were cited by Standard & Poors as the direct catalyst (though not the only justification) for the U.S. bond downrating that only further undermined our fiscal stability. In other words, the Tea Party not only threatened to harm America economically in order to obtain a concession that almost all economists agreed was not good economic policy, but it actually succeeded in harming America economically in the process.

    Obama’s threat was directed toward securing America’s economic wellbeing, because S&P had indicated that a debt-ceiling deal that did not get us through the 2012 election would be insufficient to prevent it from downgrading us. The Tea Party’s threat, on the other hand, was in service to what in fact was a nationally and globally self-destructive fanaticism, regardless of how its advocates see it. (See the series of posts in hyperlinked in the sixth box at the “Catalogue of Selected Posts” page for more in-depth discussion of the economic issues and analyses involved.)

    Your assertion that “making threats but being willing to negotiate” and even capitulate rules out characterizing those who do so as “terrorists” does not well track the history and practice of terrorism, which frequently exhibits precisely that pattern. Many terrorists have negotiated (in fact, that’s usually the purpose of acts of terrorism, to force more powerful parties into negotiations, though some modern forms seem to have lost even that tenuous grip on rationality), and many have capitulated when cornered (again, this seems to be less common than it was decades ago). So those facts do not discredit the analogy.

    Conversely, Obama’s stance vis-a-vis the Tea Party caucus was not unlike JFK’s during the Cuban Missile Crisis, not something many people other than the Soviet ruling elite at the time (arguably the actual “terrorists” of that story) would characterize as “terrorism.” We find ourselves again forced to debate the merits of the competing positions, as should be, with the analogistic characterizations being rendered simply irrelevant.

    The question, however, wasn’t whether Harrop’s choice of words was the most productive, but rather whether such choices in general always run counter to the interests of humanity, and whether they did in this particular instance. I have taken the strong stand that they emphatically do not always run counter to the interests of humanity (which is the real subject of my essay), and the more tentative stand that this example is at least a borderline case that can reasonably be criticized as both uncivil and counterproductive, but can also be defended as a more-or-less accurate assessment.

    I understand that you disagree with the above analsys, and your disagreement and argumentation of your position is welcome. But the value of it is due to the fact that reality isn’t purely subjective. Not all opinions are equal. And by arguing competing positions, we can mobilize reason and evidence so that the one best supported by them prevails.

    As a general rule, there is no ultimate, universally accepted arbiter to declare which opinions more closely approximate objective truth and which do not, but we do have many very useful institutions in place which offer something that approximates such an aribiter, such as scientific methodology, legal procedure, and, in general, the application of reason to evidence as performed by large groups of people professionally trained and dedicated full time to doing so. This is not a perfect system, but it’s the best one humanity has ever created, and it’s the one we should invest our efforts in, always seeking to refine and improve it, but never seeking to undermine or discard it.

    Sometimes, of course, the “heretics” are right and the defenders of orthodoxies are wrong, even in modern, semi-rational societies, and, when this is the case, we should all strive to ensure that reason applied to evidence, effectively communicated, is the best tool for overturning those orthodoxies, the tool upon which we rely first and most, rather than simply trying to out-shout and out-slur one another. This is why civility, as a general rule, is most often the better course of action. Froma Harrop, for instance, probably did not do much to advance her cause by using the phrase “economic terrorist,” since it would appeal only to those who already passionately agree with her, and would sway virtually no one else. More importantly, she did not advance the cause of raising the salience of well-reasoned argumentation and diminishing the salience of appeals to irrationality and predisposed passions.

    But rhetoric that does successfully highlight and reinforce imaginative reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, even when not dry and impartial in tone, is a necessary and inevitable part of human discourse, without which poorer ideas would routinely prevail over better ideas, simply because humans are not most persuaded by well-reasoned arguments but rather by arguments that resonate with their familiar frames and narratives.

    So, for instance, “A Christmas Carol,” one of my favorite all-time stories, is not an arguments based on reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, but rather an appeal to people’s better-natures, and a very effective one. I could write a book, however, about why it echoes what reason applied to evidence in service to humanity would recommend. So it accomplishes the goal of the latter through the necessary means of appealing to the frames and narratives of its audience. (See “A Political Christmas Carol” for my adaptation of that story to some of the issues we are discussing here, as well as my posts on “metamessaging” for a discussion of the general principle.)

    In other words, all other things being equal, civility is far preferable to incivility, and a commitment to humanity (to “reason in service to universal goodwill”) is far preferable to inhumanity (to irrationality in service to belligerence or bigotry or indifference to the plight of others), though the latter trumps the former, and “humanity” (reason in service to universal goodwill) must take precedence over civility, when the former is best served by a breach in the latter. Arrogating to oneself the discreton to make such judgments soundly and dispassionately runs great risk of error, but recognizing that fact, and consciously seeking to serve humanity with disciplined reason and universal goodwill, and incorporating a healthy dose of humility and self-awareness, help to minimize such error and maximize the utility and wisdom of our choices of speech and action.

  • sblecher:

    Interesting discussion. My first suggestion is for everybody to get out their dictionary and look up words like “terrorist”, “socialist”, “Communist”, “Nazi”, treason, etc. Too many people are inventing their own definitions for political terms, and it only leads to conflict, because nobody is communicating, and it’s just a Tower of Babel. There are certain truculent people who are not interested in communicating, but only want to heap abuse on people with whom they disagree, who throw around extreme rhetoric, but there is little point in trying to debate with them. There were bonafide terrorists in the US, such as the Klansmen who bombed churches and murdered civil rights workers, or people who shoot doctors and bomb clinics, or anti-government extremists like Tim Mc Veigh. The Tea Party is not in that category, and the fact that they demand harmful economic policies doesn’t really make them terrorists. Prohibition and Mc Carthyism were equally boneheaded. That video was really entertaining, and shows you don’t have to be right-winger to be dogmatic.

  • Good points, Steve. Personally, I think that if you remove this from the irony of her presiding over a “civility project,” and her failure to recognize the inconsistency, it’s a close call: “Economic terrorism” qualfies the term, and analogy and metaphor are foundational elements of language and communication. Holding the country hostage to what everyone understood to be a threat of national economic self-destruction (refusing to raise the debt ceiling), in order to gain any concessions (in this case, economically bone-headed ones, but that’s not really a necessary ingredient) bears enough structural resemblance to “terrorism” that, at least in certain contexts, drawing attention to those similarities could be very well justified.

    It’s similar to my discussion of “Godwin’s Law”; you can’t try to impose an absolute rule, but rather recognize several competing values, acknowledging that hyperbole is generally counterproductive, but that unflattering comparisons, especially if they include acknowledgement of the limited applicability of the comparison, can sometimes be useful and productive.

    But I respect your thoughtful perspective on the topic.

  • sblecher:

    The topic of civility is very much alive, and its true that civility isn’t required under extreme conditions. You don’t have to be civil if you’re talking about Somali pirates. What’s more disturbing is the total lack of respect we are seeing in the political arena. What made Jan Brewer think it’s OK to scream at the President and wave her finger under his nose? Why did Bill O’Reilly think it was OK to interrupt the President at will during an interview. Why did Joe Wilson think it was OK to yell “You lie!” on the floor of Congress? During this tiresome series of Republican debates, the only way to get applause from the Base was to make mean and nasty statements. This type of rancor isn’t unheard of in US history: it was quite common during they years leading up to the Civil War. In more recent times the John Birch Society used rhetoric similar to what we hear from Republicans now. The John Birch Society was generally considered a fringe group, but the same mentality seems to have taken hold among a large number of Republicans.

  • One more complicating dimension, beyond the fact that “civility” isn’t an absolute value that trumps all others, and that there are times when a commitment to humanity requires a compromise of the commitment to civility, is the fact that what we are referring to as “incivility” actually occupies a broad spectrum of not entirely similar things. The examples you cite are all of direct, personal incivility. The example used in the John Oliver piece is of a less intense, more generalized version of incivility, that of drawing an unflattering analogy to an ideological position, something qualitatively different from being abusive or aggressive toward a specific individual.

    Actually, there are lots of minor expressions of incivility that most people take for granted and barely bat an eyelash at that I personally revile, such as the sort of popular pile-ons that occur when some intentional or unintentional public figure is accused of wrongdoing, and a sport is made of demeaning them in every way possible. I personally find this more distasteful, and more conterproductive, yet far more “acceptable” to most people, than drawing unflattering analogies to particular ideological or political positions.

    I’m a believer in not reducing the world to simple categories, and drawing conclusions on the bases of those categories. Rather, I believe in identifying various continua along which particular instances of reality fall, and drawing conclusions based on the location in a space defined by those various continua. “Civility” is not one, but several, different continua, depending on the type of civility being discussed. And it is not freestanding, but rather perpendicular to various other continua which also have values to be considered.

    All other things being equal, more civility is better than less civility. But all other things are never equal, and so the interaction of various factors and values has to be taken into consideration.

  • sblecher:

    I read your comments in the Denver Post today, and I see that other people have made reference to the Truculent Right. It’s clear from talk radio, that many of the listeners are the kind of people who are interested in blood sports like dog fighting or cage fighting.

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