Civility is overrated

“Obama Calls for Civility Over Conflict in Shooting Aftermath” – that was the headline in and many other news sources after the January 8, 2011 killing of a half-dozen people in Tucson Arizona at a political event. In the following weeks, Americans of all stripes came together in the call for this “civility”, and then all bemoaned the return of incivility as it inevitably came.

Civility? Americans thought the lesson of a deranged shooting was “civility”? Are you kidding me? Let’s get this straight, folks: the problem with American political discourse before January 8, 2011 was not a lack of civility: it was a lack of rationality. Do people say that the problem with the shooter himself was a lack of civility? Of course not; they say it was a lack of rationality: the man was deranged. Why do they not look similarly at the inflammatory statements being made by their politicians and pundits? Why do we assume the problem with these statements is their lack of civility rather than their lack of logic? Here’s the problem: if the accusations were actually true, then they absolutely should be stated in inflammatory language. People complain about the style when they should be complaining about the substance.

When politicians accuse their opponents of “trying to destroy the country”, the problem is not “a lack of civility”; it is a lack of reason. Put simply, these wild accusations are not a logical or reasonable conclusion to draw from their opponents’ actions or statements. If you get people to express the same sentiments in more cautious language, that does not improve the situation. In fact, it only hastens the return of the wild-eyed rhetoric, because people will (correctly) see sooner or later that you’re just obsessing with appearances, and ask “why should we cover up our truths in cloying language”? The problem is that they think totally irrational conclusions are “truths”, and no one calls them out on what is really wrong with them, because that would be “uncivil”.

When someone seriously thinks that millions of his countrymen actually want to destroy their own country, the problem is not that he’s “uncivil”; the problem is that he’s either stupid or insane. There have to be dozens of different explanations for their motivations other than “trying to destroy the country”, all of which are going to make more sense. But you can’t accuse him of being an idiot or a lunatic, can you? Oh no, you can’t say that because it would be uncivil! So instead, he gets to say utterly deranged or idiotic things, and you can only admonish him if he’s rude about it. Otherwise, you’re supposed to restrict yourself to politely disagreeing while respecting his earnestness.

Paul Gallico said that “No one can be as calculatedly rude as the British, which amazes Americans, who do not understand studied insult and can only offer abuse as a substitute.” The British know that sometimes, you have to be able to declare that someone is a bloody idiot, and to do it properly, you’ll have to explain precisely how you arrived at this conclusion. Here is an example of a British person demonstrating his superior prowess of insult:

John Cleese on Sarah Palin, in an October 2008 interview:

People watching her on television, can they not see that she’s basically learned certain speeches? And she does them very well; she’s got very good memory. But it’s like a nice-looking parrot because the parrot speaks beautifully and kind of says, “aw shucks” every now and again but doesn’t really have any understanding of the meaning of the words that it is producing, even though it’s producing them very accurately. And she’s been in these training sessions with Cheney’s pals, and she’s learned these speeches, and the extraordinary thing is that so many people are taken in by it.

And the truth is that Sarah Palin is no way good enough. And if you lined up from Europe left-wingers, centrists, right-wingers, you wouldn’t find ten percent. You really wouldn’t find five percent who think she’s good enough to run the United States. And she’s running as the partner of a 72 year old cancer survivor. I mean, Monty Python could have written this.

Is he being “uncivil”? He’s certainly being insulting. He’s saying she doesn’t really understand what she’s saying in her campaign speeches, and that she’s acting like a trained parrot. Of course, we all secretly knew as much. Do you recall the 2008 vice presidential debate, when Gwen Ifill asked both candidates if circumstances might force them to break any campaign promises and Palin answered by changing the subject and saying “I want to go back to the energy plan” where she had some prepared talking points ready? She didn’t even change the subject gracefully; she just clumsily said “I want to go back” to a subject where she had memorized something to say. Mr. Cleese’s insult may be harsh, but it’s also obviously based on real observations: things we all noticed but were reluctant to put into so many words. Now compare this to the way Sarah Palin will attack someone, even in a high-profile prepared speech. From her Republican National Convention campaign speech in 2008, about Obama:

Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay … he wants to meet them without preconditions. Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?

Is this “uncivil”? Perhaps no more so than what John Cleese said about her. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s uncivil; the problem is that it’s absolutely idiotic. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the world works, and the way civilized societies work. Accusing someone of being a terrorist sympathizer for merely being open to negotiation with Iran (the country she referred to as a “terrorist state”) is just childish; what exactly is accomplished by refusing to even speak with them? Hell, even Nixon went to China. And the point of due process and civil rights in modern countries is not that we want to coddle criminals, but that we don’t decide someone is a criminal until he’s had his day in court!. What part of Basic Civics 101 (or basic human rights, for that matter) does Sarah Palin not understand? Does she believe that if someone has been accused, then he must be guilty? The problem with this kind of statement is not the incivility; it is the stupidity. And ironically, we’re not allowed to point a finger at the problem and call someone “stupid” when we’re busy obsessing over “civility” instead.

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3 Responses to Civility is overrated

  1. Chicken Sock Puppet says:

    Actually, what is idiotic is the accusation you’ve made about Palin calling Obama a “terrorist sympathizer”, especially within the context of that quote you presented. If you actually understood what Palin was saying instead of reading your own bias into it, then you would have come to conclusion that Palin wasn’t calling Obama a “terrorist sympathizer”; she was calling him “naive”.

    It’s a bigger insult than being called a “terrorist sympathizer”. Palin effectively states that Obama is simply incapable of leading the free world and is in over his head. It would be easier to state Obama is a sympathizer of terrorist states and organizations because he could still have been seen as an effective leader. However, Palin attacks his ability to lead altogether.

    It wasn’t the fact that Obama was willing to negotiate with Iran; it was the fact Obama was willing to negotiate with Iran sans any preconditions. Such actions typically embolden dictatorships.

    It wasn’t the fact Palin doesn’t believe people deserve their day in court; it was the fact Palin doesn’t believe that foreign paramilitary terrorists who operate under the cover of civilians and who’s primary targets are civilians should deserve our Constitutional protections for a system they are attempting to destroy. Instead, she believes they rightly deserve a military tribunal; which has legal precedence in the United States: (

    Geez, Mike, a simpleton could have seen what Palin meant by her comments about Obama, why couldn’t you?

    • Michael Wong says:

      Hey look, a Palindrone!

      Wow. Talk about missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether she was calling him “naive” or a “terrorist sympathizer”. Either way, the point is that that she doesn’t seem to understand the concept of negotiation or basic civics. The “preconditions” requirement seems rather obviously stupid, but since you apparently can’t see the problem, let me explain: the whole point of negotiations is to negotiate. If you unilaterally declare “preconditions” which are not subject to negotiation, you are basically saying that you do not want to negotiate; you just want to dictate terms. Clearly, Palin does not understand the concept of negotiation, and neither do you. As for “he’s worried someone won’t read them their rights”, you apparently don’t realize that even military courts define certain rights of the accused, albeit less generously than civilian courts do. As I said, she apparently fails Civics 101, and so do you.

      I can’t decide what’s more amusing: the fact that you missed the point so spectacularly or the fact that in your attempts to defend your queen bee, you’re ironically acting like Mr. Cleese’s parrot yourself: spouting off well-rehearsed talking points but not understanding the points you’re trying to refute.

      PS. By the way, she never mentioned military tribunals anywhere in that entire (prepared high-profile RNC) speech. If the original speech was not stupid, then why do you have to add outside talking points to it in order to make sense of it?



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