Incivility: A Brief Account of Our Cultural Dysfunction
In the previously published article, my good friend Nathan let out what seemed to me an exasperated call for civility. That seems about right to me. This political year has been nasty beyond belief. Presidential politics has brought out some of the most base and grotesque impulses on all sides of our political spectrum. We all need hot showers after this year is over (and no, not this kind of shower).
I commend Nathan’s call to civility, and I further embrace his call to religious freedom and toleration. But I think Nathan’s piece misses a key piece of the picture that explains (while not excusing) some of the insanity we’re witnessing. Nathan may not have had this in mind, but his piece gives off the scent that civility is the central thing that has gone wrong in society, and that a simple recovery of civility will more or less restore a healthy political atmosphere in our country. The problem with this view—whether Nathan holds it or not—is that it doesn’t account for why our political culture has become so uncivil, and it doesn’t seem to make room for the possibility that the causes of our incivility are actually of greater import. My view is that incivility is simply the outward symptom of a deeper virus that is plaguing our culture. We did not become uncivil out of the blue, and if we hope to cure our ailing political culture, we need to address the root cause of this outward symptom.
Civility is not about agreement, but about how we conduct ourselves in the midst of disagreement. It is about behavior, temperament, and attitude—it denotes a respectful manner of engagement in the way we interact with each other. This means that ideas, in themselves, can never be “uncivil.” Ideas can be good or bad, true or false, but they are never uncivil—that pertains only to the manner in which they are being espoused. Some of the most atrocious and evil ideas can in fact be advanced in a very civil tone, which makes those ideas all the more deceptive and pernicious to their hearers.
Our culture, though, adheres to a defective idea of civility that implicates not only our behavior and attitudes, but ideas themselves. Certain ideas and political proposals are now seen as inherently and irredeemably uncivil—bigoted, racist, xenophobic, etc. The idea is that only a reprehensible human being could hold such wretched views; therefore, the person must be shunned, dismissed from polite society. This is standard fare from our elites, and it really is a stunning display of moral and intellectual arrogance. Almost by reflex, they presume to stand in a morally elevated position, with little need to grow in understanding as to why the other side might hold the views that it does. From the start, the other side is deemed intolerant almost always because of their views, not by virtue of an uncivil temperament or some manifest hostility. No, the thought crime alone is quite enough to earn a kind of cultural “red card.” Polite society will have none of it.
The tragic irony of this morally arrogant response is that it actually creates incivility where there arguably was none before. Of course, there have always been uncivil elements in political society, usually shouting inward from the fringes. But here, the cultural left (and yes, it is the left) has turned a broad swath of mainstream views into culturally blacklisted “hate” views—even as those espousing the views often articulate them with utter civility and rationality, trying their best to mitigate the risk of incurring this social wrath.
This has created a toxic culture of thought suppression, where basic and commonly held views are pushed underground. Consider, for instance, the idea that we should pay closer attention to Muslim immigrants because the demographics of terrorism suggest this would make us safer. Or, consider the idea that women’s decisions to be stay-at-home mothers might in fact account for the “pay gap,” and that this is a perfectly acceptable outcome. These ideas are dismissed out of hand, the first being xenophobic and the latter being sexist—despite their bases in empirics. Ideas like this are pressed underground, but they have staying power because they’re so… well, rationally compelling.
Being underground, these blacklisted views only fester and become fused with a kind of indignation acquired from social ostracization. Now give this a few years, add some terror attacks, and ratchet up the political correctness amid those attacks, and you have a perfectly ripe scenario for Donald Trump to walk in and cash in on the entire situation. The long-suppressed tensions are finally released into the air. We all get dirt thrown into our faces. We wonder where all this “incivility” came from, but that only shows that we don’t appreciate the origins of it all.
The incivility all started with the blacklisting of basic ideas rooted in serious concerns about the welfare of the nation. The cultural elites fired the “first shots” in this dialectic of incivility. Their original intolerance of certain ideas has poisoned the well of public discourse and provoked a horrifying world of social backlash. As a result, our politics is now far more uncivil than if we had simply been able to exchange ideas freely from the start, without fear of cultural shaming.
If we want to restore behavioral civility in American politics, we need to stop with the blacklisting of mainstream ideas and the shunning of those who espouse them. Moral exhortation is perfectly fine, but it must be mixed with an intellectual and moral humility that seeks to understand the other side’s rationale and to empathize with its aims where possible. We need to be quick to listen, willing to learn, and open to being changed by encountering the other side. This does not guarantee agreement at all—it is not meant to. What it will do is get us through our bitter disagreements while never compromising the dignity of the person on the other side. That’s civility.