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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/21/2010

What is civility, anyway?

By Jennifer Rubin

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.

By Jennifer Rubin  | December 21, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
 
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Comments

Gerson got it right, but I would take this a step further. During the Bush years we saw an amazing decline in the level of discourse in the country. DC itself descended into nothing more than no hold barred hard ball.

The Democrats used every thing they had to thwart the admin and their supporters hurled invective at Bush at an embarrassing rate.

Now we have, as Gerson rightly indicates, a Democrat who wishes to deflect away the kind of ugliness that he clearly visited on his predecessor. I have absolutely no use for those who complain now about how Obama and the Democrats are being treated.

when there are movies and books about the assasination of Mr Obama, I'll consider the issue. When a prominent conservative organization has an Obama as Hitler contest I'll wonder if we're getting near the line in the sand. When all of the disgusting rhetoric of the Democrats returns to them in kind, I'll wonder if perhaps we've gone too far.

I don't apologize for any of this. My son was fighting in Iraq when Durban made his abominable statement on the floor. He was recovering from his last tour when Kerry opened his effete snob mouth about failure in school leading to Iraq.

No ma'am I have no respect for the opposition and this is no less than their own doing.

civility? Nonsense. Anger and fear are the tools we need now. If the government does not recognize our anger NOW then they can live in fear later. Fear for their cushy jobs, as Mr Williamson points out or just plain fear if that is insufficient to the task of bringing them to heel.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | December 21, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

My understanding is that START is going to pass with lots of Republican help

Posted by: rcaruth | December 21, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Skipsailing, I won't deny that some Democrats were intemperate, and a few were even incendiary, in their denunciations of the George W. Bush administration. But not a single Democratic leader EVER said anything about making him a one-term president--unlike Senators McConnell and DeMint, and too many GOP representatives to name. And none ever dared interrupt him during a State of the Union address with "You lie" (for which Rep. Wilson has never apologized, by the way).

Moreover, Democratic attacks didn't happen in a vacuum. Rather, it was a response to eight years of vicious partisan warfare carried out by the likes of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who missed no opportunity to denounce Democrats as soft on terrorism at best and traitorous at worst. Remember the use of "free speech zones" to keep anyone who was not a 100% supporter of Pres. Bush miles away from any forum where he was speaking, even supposedly public events? I do.

I also can't help but notice that your dismissive characterization of GOP attacks on Pres. Obama's policies and character does not begin to do justice to the ugliness of some of them. (NOT all, but definitely more than a few.) Rhetoric claiming the president is illegitimate, a socialist or Marxist, a secret Muslim or a terrorist sympathizer is not confined to the lunatic fringe--it is a staple of mainstream GOP discourse.

The bottom line is that all of us need to do a better job of being civil. But no objective observer could see Republicans as having the better record on that--not by a LONG shot.

Posted by: DCSteve1 | December 21, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Nice try DCSteve1

I guess wishing Obama has only one term is much worse that wishing him assassinated.

How about the charming unprecedented practice of calling everybody a racist who fails to agree with and/or vote for Obama.

What about calling a homophobe anybody who has qualms about government promoting homosexual without limits? (BTW “homophobe” was created out of whole cloth for the express purpose of denigrating such people; the word did not exist until gays and their supporters started their attack on our heterosexual society.)

What about calling an Islamophobe anybody who is anxious about Islam’s terrorism and its colonization within the midst of Western Civilazation, and even the need for TSA. (Again “Islamophobe” was created out of nowhere by the Liberals to fill their need to denigrate anyone does not cotton to a triumphal mosque being erected in the vicinity of Ground Zero, or other special privileges given to Muslims.)

Face it: Liberals have developed name calling into an art form of their very own. Among other things Liberalism is becoming synonymous with name calling.

Posted by: nvjma | December 21, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

let me add a few things to to nvjma's excellent response.

First, how soon we forget "selected not elected". In a recent interview President Bush pointed out the efforts made to de legitimize his presidency from day one. This was a concerted effort on the part of his political opposition to destroy him.

next, no one in their right mind would believe that the Democrats NEVER, EVER, NOT EVEN FOR A FLEETING SECOND considered ways to make Mr Bush a one term president. Every opposition party does that, every time. It is hilarious to suggest otherwise. You can kid yourself, but that's a foolish way to go through life.

next, the vitriol from the congressional Democrats was embarrassing. How many remember the interaction between Leahy and Cheney? Everyone surely remembers what Cheney said. But how many remember the outright nastiness pouring out of Leahy? hmmmm?

Denouncing the Democrats as being soft on terrorism makes complete sense, they are soft on terrorism. Look at the hue and cry to extend constitutional rights to thugs and murderers at Gitmo. Shame on the Democrats. They used things like the patriot act as a means of discrediting Bush. Now they are completely silent about this law, even though it is still in effect and, and, and being used by the Obama Admin.

And all the objections to drone attacks, gone. concern about renditions, gone. Victor Davis Hanson routinely catalogs the two faced rhetoric of the left. Nope, no sale on this.

So spare me the nonsense on this one. The Democrats and their camp followers on the left destroyed civility in America and now they are whining when they are on the recieving end. Too late.

You sowed, now you reap.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | December 21, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Ah, skippy. Thanks for providing some perspective--some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective--on civility. Perhaps you'd like a white burgundy with that.

The true irony of this post is that Jennifer can't make it through a post on civility of all things, without throwing a few bombs. Having a civil conversation with Islam is now "groveling". Don't get me wrong. Bomb throwers are entertaining and it's fun to throw a few back at them. Just don't lecture us on civility.

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 21, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

My position is clear: don't expect anything from your opposition that you were unwilling to demonstrate before.

So, BB my boy it is simple: sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The whiney liberals demand civility now, even though they were just as nasty as they could be for the entire Bush admin. That's the lay of the land now. You made this bed, act like an adult, shut up and lay in it.

No one is lecturing you on civility. A bigger waste of time can scarcely be imagined. Here's another old saying: talking to liberals about civility is like washing a packass. It is a waste of soap and annoys the animal.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | December 22, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

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