If you don’t agree with us, be civil and shut up…
So, what is civility? Why do those who call for it usually not even make an attempt to define it? Columnist Jeff Jacoby did not define civility in his Boston Globe essay, “American Politics Needs More Civility, Not Less.” He evokes the incivility of those who’ve compared Obama to Hitler. But why evoke that or even Obama's implying people who disagree with him are no better than Iranian Islamist hardliners? Instead, the focus should be on Obama’s purposeful lying about Benghazi, the ACA, etc., as well as his lack of transparency in the Iran deal, and egregious hypocrisy (lavish lifestyle vs. income equality blather and stonewalling/secrecy vs. most transparent president in history blather). Oops, am I being uncivil?
Vagueness, of course, enables facile evocation, right and left, and in between. In reality, the call for civility is often a thinly-veiled ploy to push citizens to march in lockstep with a given ideology or even with some undefined code of behavior, always uncritical in nature. But without criticism, problems cannot be addressed and thus cannot be resolved. The call for civility serves to buffer those in power, be they leaders of a particular ideology, politicians, academics, or whomever.
Periodically the call for civility rises, especially, in academe and politics, two places where focus should not be on civility at all, but rather on democracy, especially its two cornerstones of freedom of speech and vigorous debate. The Charlie Hebdo massacre, provoked by freedom of expression, inevitably brought on the call for civility (i.e., stifling freedom of expression). Yes, the murdered cartoonists deserved what they got because they were uncivil, that is, disrespectful of Muslim fundamentalists and Islam. Openly criticize the latter and, of course, risk being labeled an islamophobe, that is, an uncivil critic of Islam. More recently, Donald Trump provoked the call for civility regarding his criticism of illegal immigrants.
Unwanted criticism is dealt with by dismissing the critic as uncivil. It is the old shoot the messenger in an effort to avoid the message tactic. No need to examine the criticism. Just call the messenger uncivil. Rather than the vague call for civility, however, those resorting to ad hominem, left or right-wingers, should be denounced by both left and right wingers. They should be pushed to criticize the message with fact and reason and made to understand that killing the messenger does not further the conversation or debate at all.
“Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process,” stated Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, as noted by Craig Shirley in his essay “In Defense of Incivility.” Shirley rightfully countered: “How gentle. How sweet. How un-American.” To his response, one might add and ponder: what happens when those “needs and beliefs” contradict or even seek to destroy the “needs and beliefs” of others? Here again, radical Islam comes to mind… and so does political correctness. Both ideologies seek to dominate and decimate—not merely coexist with—other ideologies. To question and challenge Islam and PC automatically becomes an act of incivility. Thus, if one wishes to be civil, one must avoid criticizing those ideologies even when fact and reason compel one to do so. The satirist must cease being a satirist. After all, is not “civil satirist” an oxymoron? To satisfy civility requisites, Charlie Hebdo would have to close its doors… and thus reflect the inevitable conflict between civility and democracy.
Civility is not as simple a concept as some would like to have people believe. Fervent proponents of freedom of speech and expression inevitably choose not to be civil, which implies not submitting to the dictates of, for example, Islam and other such totalitarian ideologies. In fact, Islam means submission and certainly does not mean freedom.
Has civility become code for PC, self-censorship, and microaggression/safe space sensitivity/inanity? Question and challenge PC and be accused of incivility? Does civility mean good taste a la bourgeoisie? In literature and academe, it certainly does! Who defines the nebulous terms civility and good taste? Those in power, those with voice, they define them as a protective cocoon for their realm of inevitable corruption.
Rather than civility or lack thereof, the real concern for a vibrant democracy, as opposed to a theocracy or PC-autocracy, should be the proliferation of LIARS in the ranks of politicians and the incapacity of We, the People to get rid of them. The State Department has become the Department of Prevarication. Rather than the emphasis on civility, it should be on freedom of speech and expression. Shamefully, our universities and sinecured academics tend to emphasize the former, not the latter. Our politicians tend to be very civil, that is, mannerly, wear suits and ties, smile, shake many hands, do not utter prohibited words, yet tend to be also intrinsic liars. Why do citizens seem to prefer civil liars over rude-truth tellers?
The call for civility is a ploy to deflect from the pertinent issues at hand. Calling someone uncivil is in itself ad hominem, serving to completely avoid the message of the soi-disant uncivil messenger. In 2009 two political hacks (oops, I’m being uncivil!), uh, “prominent political activists” Republican Mark DeMoss and Democrat Lanny Davis, as noted by Jacoby, contacted all 535 members of Congress, as well as the 50 governors, asking they sign a Civility Pledge: “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.” Only three of them would sign it. Well, maybe there’s hope? But why didn’t DeMos and Davis ask them to sign a Truth-Telling Pledge instead? Jacoby argues, “we have reached a point where politicians fear to commit themselves to even the mildest standard of civility.” But again, what those standards are, he fails to stipulate. But who cares anyhow? I care about the civil lying, the civil hypocrisy, the civil word parsing, the civil misspeaking, and the civil back peddling.
NB: Whenever the term civility is evoked, I react viscerally because my own uncivil behavior provoked two library directors to ban me, one for six months, the other permanently. My own uncivil behavior provoked a cop to arrest and incarcerate me, as a result of a non-violent dispute with a park ranger at Walden Pond. Incivility is an excuse for cops to arrest and incarcerate those who have broken no laws. It’s called disorderly conduct. To question and challenge those in power positions, both major and minor, is an act of disorderly conduct. My own uncivil behavior prevented me from getting tenure at a state university. Uncivil is code for questioning and challenging those in power…
Image Courtesy of mirabiledictu.org