What is civility, anyway?
In the midst of a raucous round of comments on my post about Cynthia Tucker violating the second rule of political discourse (calling the other side "unpatriotic"; the first is "Whoever makes the Hitler or Nazi analogy loses the argument"), commenter DrMarkJohnHunter writes:
Lack of civility can be as much an issue to avoid real issues as any. Substantive civility is needed, where, when laws are proposed, the human consequences are discussed. It is not civil to pass laws, or repeal laws which result in human failure, or which lead to injuries, disease, death or poverty.
He raises two interesting points, but I think misses the mark. His first concern is that civility masks "real issues." In extreme cases, this is true. For example, the Obama administration, as part of its "Muslim Outreach," which can be seen as civility verging on groveling, won't even utter the words "Islamic fundamentalism" or "Islamic terrorism." Michael Gerson wrote on this theme earlier this year:
Admittedly, the call for civility can be a political ploy. It is not a coincidence that the party in power is invariably the defender of decorum, hoping to shield itself from criticism. And some people attempt to use the threat of radicalism as a weapon. The syllogism goes: Some who oppose health-care reform seem prone to extremism. Therefore anyone who opposes health-care reform is promoting extremism. It is enough to make a professor of logic weep. It is also the same reasoning that would accuse all who hold antiwar views of promoting anti-Americanism.
But in general, civility doesn't mean you ignore issues or lack strong convictions; it means that you express your views without ad hominem attacks, with some respect for your opponents (making an effort to understand their reasoning so you can refute it) and with some reasoned argument. (Michael and Peter Wehner have written an excellent book on the subject.) In short, civility is not obtuseness, and polite language need not become a ruse for avoiding tough issues.
The second issue the reader raises has to do whether policy should be considered "civil" or not. There are extreme cases, usually politically perilous proclamations and unwise commemorations, in which the language of a piece of legislation is hurtful, insulting or inappropriate. But a law that leads to human suffering (e.g. our pre-Clinton-reform welfare system) isn't uncivil; it's just a bad law. And I think there is a danger here in labeling what we don't like or what we think doesn't work as "uncivil." It promotes the very sort of name calling we should avoid.
Civiilty is nothing more and nothing less than "courteous behavior, politeness." The best way to promote civility? Practice it. The 'No Labels' folks should take a look, for example at their own rhetoric and decide whether their obvious disdain for partisanship and their adjective-laden descriptions of those who disagree with them don't contribute to the decline in political discourse.
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