Monday, 26 March 2012

On Civility

The furore created by Rush Limbaugh a few weeks ago has prompted the beltway press to once again take up the theme of civility in American public discourse. The Washington Post Editorial Board waded into the issue by first denouncing Mr. Limbaugh and then, just last week, criticizing Bill Maher. In its March 22nd piece, the Board wrote:

‘He [Bill Maher] and Mr. Limbaugh both have a constitutional right to express themselves. But there are Americans who sincerely hope for civil discourse — for a nation where not every opponent is seen as an enemy.’

After coming down hard on Mr. Limbaugh the Post obviously felt compelled to look at what they believe to be a liberal example of incivility. But before we examine the vapidity of this practice, we need to understand what is meant by ‘civility’ in this context.

I assume civil discourse to mean political speech that is polite in manner and calm in tone; and if we accept this as a working convention the Post’s first blunder becomes obvious: political comedy is not political dialogue—at least not in the literal sense. By blindly following the right-wing’s forced outrage about Bill Maher’s jokes the Post’s Editorial Board failed to notice the distinction between the nature of Mr. Maher’s satire—and that of other comedians such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Dennis Miller—and Mr. Limbaugh’s daily commentary.

This is understandable. Up until around 15 years ago, the public was treated almost exclusively to the ‘everyday life’ kind of comedy delivered by Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. But in the mid-to-late 1990s political satire broke out of the confines of newspaper cartoons and made its return to the more dominant media stream of television. I say ‘return’ because political satire in America goes back to Mark Twain, and comedians such as Mr. Maher have only revitalized it. Indeed, political and social satire is an artistic form that dates back to Ancient Rome—think of Juvenal’s Satires and Lucian’s Dialogues—and has been brilliantly expressed in the modern era by such writers as Moliere, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and George Bernard Shaw.

The aim of the political satirist is to use the politics, customs, manners, and other social conventions of a nation to produce material—novels, plays, and now, live television performances—that is humorous and entertaining. It doesn’t follow that the satirist is void of political convictions or a political agenda; however, these things are secondary to his primary purpose as an artist, which is to make people laugh, or at least get them to see the comedic aspects of politics and society.

Now this differs greatly from what Mr. Limbaugh does. Mr. Limbaugh says he ‘uses absurdity to illustrate absurdity’, and he seems to be the only one who knows what that means. In any case, he has never claimed to be a comedian or a satirist, and he should not be compared with those who do claim that role and exercise that talent. Mr. Limbaugh is a political commentator who manipulates select news stories in a way that encourages his audience, which consists mostly of middle-aged, middle-income white men, to blame liberals and ethnic minorities for their woes. Mr. Limbaugh’s aim is to make people hate, Mr. Maher’s is to make people laugh—the two are not the same.  The Washington Post Editorial Board seems to think that because Mr. Maher’s comedy upsets conservatives and Mr. Limbaugh’s commentary upsets liberals they are both engaged in public discourse and they are equally guilty of incivility. And this is nonsensical. If the Post is so desperate to find equivalence between liberal and conservative political commentators it would do best to look at Ed Schultz, Mike Papantonio, or other liberal radio talkers.

The next thing the self-proclaimed champions of civility fail to take note of are the conditions under which incivility has emerged. The rather coarse nature of much of our political discourse is usually attributed to the fragmentation of media into liberal and conservative outlets; but the problem has more to do with what certain persons believe than with the outlets that allow such beliefs to be expressed.

Let’s take the hot-button issue of abortion. To be sure, the nature of personhood includes all sorts of scientific, philosophical, and theological issues that can be rationally debated and pondered over; but it is impossible to have a polite discussion with someone who is convinced that anyone who supports a woman’s right to choose is a baby-killer. Similarly, it’s quite difficult not to be derisive of persons who believe that humans walked the Earth with dinosaurs, that President Obama is a foreign usurper, that climate change is a vast international conspiracy, and that the only way to decrease gun-related violence is to increase the number of guns on the street—these are beliefs that directly contradict facts; and it is just plain silly, not to mention intellectually dishonest, to say they ought to be respected in the name of civility.

The conditions that create incivility must be dealt with directly if it is to be extirpated. Working to marginalize absurd beliefs is one measure to be taken, fighting cynicism is another—and here the Washington Post in particular can lead by example. On February 20th of this year the Post published a piece by Glenn Beck, a man who has engaged in the most vicious forms of political demagoguery. The Post essentially allowed Mr. Beck to pose as a respectable commentator, while completely ignoring the fact that he peddles hate and paranoia on his radio show. If the Washington Post is serious about changing the tone of politics, then the paper must resist the notion that it, like other media outlets, is interested only in attracting readers and making money. But what is a person to make of the Post’s publishing an article by Mr. Beck? How can the Post give up column inches to a hate-monger on Sunday and then lecture Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Maher, and the American public on the need for civility on Monday?  Such insincerity only strengthens the kind of cynicism the Post ought to be trying to discourage.   

Now the supposed virtue of civility is moderation. It is claimed that civility leads to greater nuance in public debate and a more balanced approach to the formulation of public policy. Thus in her March 24th column Kathleen Parker writes:

‘Moderation isn’t an endpoint or even a center point, necessarily. Rather than a template, it is an approach, a tone, a cock of the head, an open mind, a willing ear, an unjaundiced eye. A moderate wonders what other facts might be brought to bear. A moderate figures we’re in this together and believes that a meeting of minds is not tantamount to surrender.’

Fine words. And by this standard moderation must begin with making clear distinctions and end with exercising critical judgment. But the kind of equivocation that Ms. Parker and other political commentators regularly engage in is an impediment to such action. When writers depict one utterance or mode of expression as equal to others that have provoked similar outrage, they stymie the progression of thought; and their failure to examine particulars and make distinctions leads to a dreary sense of sameness that encourages persons to accept undifferentiated grievance and unending hostility as the norm.

The path of moderation cannot be taken if despair and distrust rule the public mind. Nor is there any reason to think that one can establish civility in the public sphere without taking a stand against ridiculous beliefs and the merchants of ignorance who push them. I realize that many persons are uncomfortable with this latter idea, accepting as we do that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’; but one cannot change outcomes without changing conditions; and the agents of fear, enmity, and confusion must be opposed if a general tone of dignity and respect is to become the norm in political debate.

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