“Obama Calls for Civility Over Conflict in Shooting Aftermath” – that was the headline in Bloomberg.com 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.