There has been a great deal written about “civility” in the political discourse of the chattering classes, lately. I’ve written some of it myself. But what is “civility”?
I think most people would respond with some version of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase with regard to obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” He was mocked, and rightly so, for championing such an utterly subjective standard.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition is hardly more helpful:
- bemoaned the decline of civility in our politics
- lacked the little civilities and hypocrisies of political society —Roy Jenkins
- The men briefly exchanged civilities before the meeting began.
I’m all for training in the humanities. Frankly, I think a bit more of that, and of education in general, would heal a lot of the ills this country faces now. but I don’t think that is what people are talking about when they talk about civility today. Rather they are looking at that second definition.
And that seems hopelessly subjective as well. Who is to define what is “civilized conduct”? Miss Manners? Dear Abbie? Or courtesy and politeness, for that matter?
Don’t get me wrong, I think there is definitely a place for courtesy and politeness in society. I also think there is a strong reason most norms of society were established. You could say, with some justification, that they are an essential part of the glue which holds our society together, along with the rule of law. That glue is what keeps us from constantly attacking, verbally and physically, all with whom we disagree or who are different from us. That keeps us from a time when the strong rule the weak with an iron hand, and the majority can oppress the minority at will.
So civility is not unimportant.
But it is also not sufficient to face the threats we have now.
Politics has always been a bare-knuckle fight, filled with aggressive, alpha dog men (and recently a few women) who have frequently tested the bounds of normal “civility” in their quest to advance the causes they believe in, or just to accumulate more power. However, until the coming of Donald Trump, they were somewhat restrained by the normal rules of society. They might stray across the line occasionally, but those who were successful always eventually returned to the norms of “civilized” behavior, either voluntarily or because public opinion forced them to. Those who did not were eventually rejected and repudiated by the American people.
Trump is different. He has met no norm of civilized society that he is not prepared to break. He doesn’t occasionally cross the line. He obliterates the line and celebrates the fact that is doing it. He clearly believes the line doesn’t apply to him. So far, it is hard to argue that he is wrong. A huge portion of his support comes from people who adore him not despite the fact that he is nasty, bigoted and petty, but rather BECAUSE he is nasty, bigoted and petty. At least so long as he aims his nastiness and bigotry at people other than them. People they don’t like.
And, yes, it is the absolute height of hypocrisy for anyone who voted for Donald J. Trump to accuse anyone else in he world of “incivility”. The very idea of that would make me roll around on the floor clutching my sides in fits of hilarity. It would, if those same people had not made him our president. Instead, it breaks my heart and moves me to the verge of tears.
Just as it breaks my heart that some of those who oppose him think the best way to do so is to engage him on his level. I love them for their courage and their commitment to face down all that is wrong in America today, but they still break my heart.
That does not mean that I believe we need to remain silent in the face of the very real damage being done to our democracy by the wannabe dictator and his sycophantic cult of personality. Far from it.
They deserve and more than deserve every bit of derision, every harsh condemnation, every verbal counterattack they receive. They have it coming and then some.
I still think there are some lines that we shouldn’t cross, like Samantha Bee and Robert DeNiro’s vulgarity and like refusal of service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the Virginia restaurant “The Red Hen”. But my reason for believing we shouldn’t cross those lines is not because I disagree with the sentiments of those who crossed them. Rather it is because I believe they are deeply counterproductive. They too easily feed into the narrative that Trump is no different from anybody else. That both sides are equally vulgar and nasty. That loyalty to tribe is more important than character in our leaders.
That thinking, perhaps as much as anything else, enabled Trump’s rise.
But those of us who have long respected civility, who believe that character in our leaders is important, and that some rules of behavior ought to be respected need to find an appropriate response to Trump and the threat to democracy that he represents. Perhaps our old notions of civility need to be revised.
We need to speak up loud and clear in response to every fresh outrage, every blow that Trump strikes against minorities, the poor, the rule of law and against democracy itself. We need to not shy away from using accurate labels and strong terms like racism, bigotry, white nationalism and white supremacy when they are well-deserved, as they are just about every day. We cannot let the need for “civility” deter us from speaking truth to power.
If we do, that’s not “civility”. That’s just conflict avoidance…or appeasement. We have a responsibility to speak out loud and often when we see wrong being done.
Maybe someday we can restore a broader definition of civility. I certainly hope so and this November gives us a golden opportunity to take a step in that direction.
Until then, I don’t really have it in my heart to completely condemn those who cross the line in criticizing Trump. But it still makes me sad, and I worry that it is plays right into his hands.