Incivility in Political Discourse (updated below)

If you haven't yet, check out the comments on the previous thread. Shakes' Sis actually stopped by and offered her input--and I haven't been this excited about a blog interaction since my spat with Roger Scruton however many months ago! I of course gave an unnecessarily long-winded reply (this is such a bad habit, but all too common amongst academics--he says, in the midst of a digression, as he writes another insanely long post), but I think I at least made some important distinctions.

But then today, I came across this post (via Majikthise [via Crooks and Liars]) which was not explicitly connected to the "big girl" fiasco, but should be.

Blogger Chris Clarke of Creek Running North was pointing out how stupid it is to insult wingnuts by drawing on personal features that have nothing to do with what they say:

A reader, after considering my post on civility, sent a note asking whether the notion of justifiable incivility might not pose the threat of blowback, of giving some in the left camp perceived license to offend the usual victims of ridicule in this society. The reader pointed out the recent rise of the cliché "clutching [his/er] pearls," [sic - MDE] used to signify either feigned or exaggerated outrage, usually targeted at a male in an attempt to mock. There is, after all, nothing men consider a greater insult than being called a woman. Witness the continuing use of the word "pussy" as a synonym for "coward." Gay men and lesbians come in for their unfair share of abuse by metaphor, and transgender people fare worse: Google on "Ann Coulter" and "Adam's apple" for examples of that latter one. I've written before about using slurs against the mentally disabled. And the racist invective unleashed by a few scattered blog commenters against people like Michelle Malkin — when there are so many other hammers she hands people to hit her with — continues to astound me, if only because she plays it to her advantage every time and the anti-Asian racist commenters still never learn that they're helping her. [links removed - MDE]

As he mentions, he writes elsewhere about how the same thing applies with terms of abuse associated with mental retardation (an interesting post in itself, although he draws on the typical "but who's to say what intelligence is, really?" trope that ignores any and all research on quantitative measures of intelligence).

In any case, this should all be read within the context of his statements on incivility generally:

My point: it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can't afford medicine. It is not civil to speak in even, chuckling sardonicism as one beleaguered wild place after another is paved for profit. It is not civil to calmly raise logical arguments against torture, against kidnapping, against using nuclear weapons on civilians to show our resolve.


I have joked that the civility trope is a self-defeating one for the right to adopt: no one can use civility as a weapon better than the left, for what is Political Correctness if not civility refined to a fetish? But the truth is this: it is easy to insist on civility from behind the neat stuccoed walls of the gated community. Whether it comes from right or left, a fetishized civility increasingly bespeaks a personal stake in the monstrous status quo. I prize humane discussion, and am happy to befriend people of good will with near complete disregard to their political opinions. As long as they do not show rabid hate, I am willing to presume the best of them.

But I have decided I no longer trust anyone who insists on others being civil. The bumper sticker from ten years ago said "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." That needs updating. If you're not outraged, then you've decided that the suffering that exists in the world is just fine with you, as long as you don't feel it.

And if you've decided that, you don't deserve civility. And if progressives call you on your shit in the strongest terms possible, that’s because we consider it the only ethical response.

What we're seeing is an interesting confluence of issues about political dialogue, its form and content. "Incivility" is talked about quite a bit these days--most recently, as Glenn Greenwald has been blogging, the hecklers of John McCain's speech at the New School's commencement have been demonized in a typically hypocritical way.

These issues need to be linked together. What is at stake is freedom of speech. One way of suppressing dissenting speech is to attack its form rather than its content--hurling an ad hominem is much easier than refuting a sophisticated argument. This tactic is especially advantageous in some cases because it's a way of changing the subject.

There are cases to be made that both left and right try to undermine free speech when they come across things they don't want to hear. On the right, this is done blatantly and unapologetically: criticizing our Commander-in-Thief is an act of treason that gives aid and comfort to the Enemy.

Here, though, we come across 2 sets of more ambiguous cases on the left. On the one hand, we have the use of language that is sexist, racist, homophobic, weightist, ageist, etc., used in attacks against conservatives. On the other hand, we have speech that is actively used to shut out the speech of someone with whom we disagree who has been given (we think unjustly) a forum, an opportunity to be heard.

My inclination, at least initially, is to oppose rhetorical tactics that address the form more than the content of someone's speech. However, I am well aware that this distinction is somewhat artificial and that form is never politically neutral. Similarly, I would like to be open to hearing different sides of issues, but not every POV deserves a hearing--some are wrong, others are incoherent, some are widely available, others are common knowledge. How do we know who should get a hearing?

Here, I think it would be helpful to make a distinction. Discrimination, contrary to what unthinking liberals say, is not always a bad thing. We make discriminations constantly in our daily lives anytime we evaluate things as being better or worse than other things. The controversies arise when we start evaluating persons rather than things.

But even here, contrary to the sentiment of slightly more thoughtful people, discriminations of people are fine and in fact desirable in some contexts. Under the law, all should be seen equally--discrimination is not appropriate here. But, we can, do, and should make moral distinctions among people.

It is appropriate, for instance, for the state to treat criminals (so long as the procedure that led to their conviction was just--this rules out racism and other biases motivating arrests and convictions as well as attempts at vigilante justice) differently than law-abiding citizens. This doesn't mean that we kill them or torture them but, depending on the offense, we may be justified in depriving them of their freedom for a time (there are issues here involving the death penalty that I'm not going to get into now).

Similarly, in some circumstances it is right to treat people we deem immoral differently than others. Is political dialogue one such circumstance?

The problem is, there cannot be a general answer to this, and here's why: the terms of political discussion can never finally be agreed upon. They must always be negotiated. So, for instance, when oil companies try to argue that there is a contoversy over global warming, or when Christalopithecans want schools to present "both sides" of the evolution debate, what we would normally take as an acceptable practice promoting open-mindedness and tolerance is not as it seems. In these matters, there is no authentic controversy. But these examples are too easy, because they are cases in which people can rightly be regarded as experts, and there is a relative consensus among these experts.

Take another issue like abortion. One side says that it should be up to the individual to make that decision. But the other side sees this as equivalent to leaving it up to individuals to decide whether they should kill someone who incoveniences them. This option, they purport, should be off the table.

If you look at what abolitionists in the pre-Civil War era had to say about slavery, you find some discomfiting similarities with the current anti-abortion movement. (Back then, the conciliatory attitude is what led to such things as the 3/5 Compromise.)

So it is not always clear when we should give the other side a fair hearing. Did the students and faculty of the New School unfairly silence McCain? I think not, especially since the speech he gave was also given to two other schools (including Falwell's Liberty University) and was available online. But many cases are more difficult, and I'm afraid the only conclusion I can reach is that these should be handled on a case by case basis.

(This post needs more revision, but I'll post it as is for right now.)

UPDATE: Let me just offer a few concluding thoughts. I read through Chris Clarke's post on mental disability and found some more interesting stuff there:

I am grateful for my intelligence. It allows me to support myself doing things I find interesting, itself a rare gift these days. More importantly, it allows me to find a huge number of things not only interesting but infinitely complex as well. But it makes as much sense to me to be proud of my mind as it does to be proud of a birthmark, or my shoe size. People who focus on their studies, who turn in homework on time or at all, who diligently push their test scores up to the high Bs or mid-As, in school, who spend mental sweat in the workplace trying desperately to keep their skills marketable: they have something to be proud of. I have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike, and then getting a prodigious amount of work done in something very like a fugue state.

Based on this, he then argues that we should avoid calling our opponents "retards" or "imbeciles"; intelligence is not a measure of value.

I agree with the larger point, of course. Intelligent people are just as capable of hurtful deeds as they are of helpful ones, despite the halo effect that grants them extra worth in the eyes of most people.

However, I want to call into question this idea that some people deserve to be praised because they work hard. This is an unquestioned assumption for the vast majority of people. And, in a sense, it should be, because it encourages people to better themselves.

Nevertheless, if I'm honest with myself, I find it impossible to see diligence or a work ethic as significantly different from high intelligence. Intelligence is largely heritable (I think in twin studies its r value is around .7, which means it account for roughly 70% of all variation), but it depends upon environmental factors like nutrition and intellectual climate to develop to its full potential.

How different is this than diligence as a trait? It may not be as heritable, but some people are "naturally" more lazy than others. If I've got strict parents who incessantly tout the value of a hard day's work, chances are that I'll have a stronger work ethic. But I didn't choose my parents or my childhood environment. What's the real difference here?

Strictly speaking, I don't think anyone deserves praise or blame for anything--this follows from rejecting freedom of the will, as far as I can tell. But, in practice, I think it good to use praise and blame in ways that promote better outcomes, whatever "better" happens to mean.

Personally, I admire the extremely intelligent, especially if they put their intelligence to good use. I'm fascinated about how differently the smartest among us think about the world. And I'm envious. I don't accord intelligence moral worth, but I value it highly.

And I think most people do too. This is why there's so much controversy over IQ and other measures of intelligence. It provides a way of ranking people that runs contrary to our prevailing egalitarian sentiment. Smart people are encouraged to feel guilty about being smart and even to apologize for it. (I find it easier just not to talk about such things in front of dumb people.)

But we all know that people are not equal by ability. Some people are stronger than others, or faster, taller, smarter, more passionate, more charismatic, and even naturally happier than others. Probably no one is good at everything, but the differences don't by any means even out. Some people are winners in the genetic lottery (which tends to mean they also have better early childhood environments) and others don't fare nearly so well.

(This is where my inclination is to come in and start pimping the use of biotechnology to erode such inequalities. But people still believe that some good things are earned, and that it's cheating to get something for nothing. Well, life is not a zero-sum game. Who knows what we're capable of?)

So the real question here: what is it okay to criticize others about? I think Shakes' Sis is correct that we should not make fun of people because of physical characteristics they have no control over. And we shouldn't use terms that denote disadvantaged groups as pejoratives.

If you disagree with what someone says, you should respond to her arguments, not to her personal characteristics. Except, of course, if part of what's at stake are issues of expertise. Then there may be other relevant matters: is this individual regarded highly among her peers? does she fairly represent the views of others in her field? have her past predictions borne fruit? and so on. This is necessary as knowledge becomes more and more specialized, and less accessible to the lay public.

For my own sake, I will not relinquish use of my favorite epithet, "fucktard", a term elegant in its crudity, and the absolute perfect word to describe some current (p)residents of the White House. (Sometimes crass people deserve crass treatment.)

That's enough for now.

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