Civility is About Being Accurate in What You Say

Moreover, even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend…

…The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction. David Brooks, The Tree of Failure NYT

Being civil, as Dr. Krugman points out, does not mean there are factions that will not disagree on just about everything on how the US governs its citizens. And it will get personal and it will get ugly. It’s always been so in American politics. To say civility has declined in the last forty years forgets McCarthyism, just as a start! Yet Brooks’ omissions get to a wider point on how heated politics stems to the morality of individuals which are in two general competing camps and how we say what is true to the best of our ability.

Civility is about being accurate in what you say. Political discourse will always be heated in America. Most liberals will call George W. Bush a complete failure way into the future, because there’s a case for that, and conservatives will always say FDR was terrible because he brought America the welfare state. That’s their opinion. This is the right to free speech. What calls for civility can do is acknowledge that Obama is not like Hitler, and wishing to poison Nancy Pelosi for implementing Democratic policies they campaigned and won on is not only uncivil but unstable.

From what I’ve read about American history, David Brooks seems to be projecting values he wants on people who behaved like we do now, or worse. People are no more moral or in control of themselves now than they were “back in the day.” Remember when Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, two of the modest and socially restrained Founders, got angry and had a duel. Yeah, Burr shot Hamilton dead. The restraint of murderers! Or when some congressman bludgeoned another with a cane during a slavery debate. Yeah, that guy was injured so badly he didn’t recover for three years! And sometimes, George Washington’s pragmatism and moderation seems weirdly cold-hearted but all too familiar, like marrying a rich old widow for her money to build his own own wealth and power. At least everyone knew this was the reason he married her. Such were those more civil American politicians.

And how the Founders established institutional restraints to incivility, I cannot fathom. They placed barriers to executive power, and allowed the empowerment of the judiciary in Marbury vs. Madison. They didn’t construct a culture of civility, they shielded the government from the effects of incivility. My feeling is they knew politics would always be uncivil. People are going to disagree about politics. American politics shouldn’t promote violence, is the key, and when you speak in violent metaphors, you are being violent.

Things don’t seem much different today, in fact, they seem more civil between politicians. When was the last Congressman-Congressman beat down? As much as it would have been memorable and not uncommon with other uncivil times in American history, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not beat Speaker Boehner with his historically over-sized gavel shouting “Cry about this you orange drunk!”

Mr. Brooks says civility comes from personal modesty. Maybe, but what’s more important is that individuals tolerate differences of opinion. You can be as bombastic and egoistic as you want, like Justice Scalia for instance, but still respect the opinions of others in a civil way, like Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg (who are close friends).

Warning, this will sound stupid: The truth is some things are true. ‘Citizens should be treated equally by their government’ is a truth I think we can all agree on. There is no good argument for why this should not be – at least that I can think of. Yet, using Mr. Brooks’ framework, it is easy to frame the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as a fragmented truth that should have been put off and incrementally realized, the exact logic Southern segregation supports used:

The truth is fragmented. Just because facilities are segregated doesn’t mean it’s necessarily inoffensive to white people that the government forces integration. There’s a lot of anger out there about what’s going on. There are offenses on both sides. We should try and tone it down, limit our goals, and take things at a speed everybody can agree on.

Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy argued this very thing, though they of course followed the rule of law to support civil rights when the courts ruled segregation was unconstitutional. For example, when the local white majority challenged the Court ordered Little Rock school integration, Eisenhower sent in the US marshals to enforce it. However, it was wrong to just follow the law as the Supreme Court revised its interpretations and not pursue equality with all legislative power possible, because the truth was, segregation was wrong and there was no justification for it. You could not deny the rights of an entire generation of people so it could happen more slowly and sensibly to the oppressive class, even if they don’t see themselves that way. LBJ knew this to be true, knew it was accurate to say so, even though it offended tons of racists and cost Democrats political control of the South in electoral politics up to this very day. An argument of moderation is inadequate in the face of certain truths. That this applies to the Civil Rights Era seems obvious to people in our time, but was not obvious to the legions of moderate 1960s Americans.

If you acknowledge that in the 1960s there were some enduring truths that some could see and others could not, then you cannot just state that the truths of our time are too fragmented to decipher. If you can decipher them, they should be accurate, even if it insults advocates of a political thought. That is the problem with modern right wing rhetoric. Smart, principled people know it is unintelligible, hurtful, and entirely inaccurate. It’s not about people losing restraint over decades, it’s about people thinking they are moderating themselves by believing “I will say violent, angry things louder and louder but not mean to follow them out. This will not reflect poorly on me and my beliefs, nor could I be part of the culture that caused it, if violent tragedies do happen.” It is about reasoning what you think and say into probable action and analyzing what this would make the world. In every case of right wing vitriol I’ve read, the Right is just wrong about the situation and no amount of civility will change the truth that President Obama is not like Hitler at all.

The roots of the ‘Tree of Failure’ drinks from the aquifer of poor reason and inaccuracies, not a dearth of personal humility. There should be restraint, but more important to civility is to be accurate.

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