Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Civility and Politics Beyond the Pale

Michelle Goldberg has an excellent opinion piece in the NYT on the recent 'civility debate':
The norms of our political life require a degree of bipartisan forbearance. But treating members of Donald Trump’s administration as ordinary public officials rather than pariahs does more to normalize bigotry than exercising alongside a white separatist. [...] As long as our rulers wage war on cosmopolitan culture, they shouldn’t feel entitled to its fruits. If they don’t want to hear from the angry citizens they’re supposed to serve, let them eat at Trump Grill.

Ordinarily, my sympathies are all for showing civic respect to our political "opponents" (who ideally we should not think of as opponents at all).  But these aren't ordinary times.  As Goldberg briefly recounts, the Trump administration (and indeed much of the broader Republican party) has abandoned any pretense of abiding by norms of civil democracy in favour of blatant dishonesty, inhumanity, and political corruption.

Do those who insist on continued civility (for moral rather than tactical reasons) deny that Trump and his cronies have gone beyond the pale?  If so, where do they draw the line -- must we tolerate everything short of the gas chamber?


  1. I think this confuses a few members of the Trump administration, with Trump administration. Of course, the bad apples get the focus, but it's just wrong to think that Navarro, or Pompeo, or Kudlow, or Cohn, or Tillerson, or De Vos, or Carson, haven't adhered to the norms of civil society. Some of them just hold views that are disputed, false, or silly. Being a political hack like Guliani is hardly unique to this administration. Neither is the corruption of Pruitt.

    And, being willing to lie in public (or at least be very good as self-deception) is likely a requirement of press secretary. The "gas chamber" comment really just is ridiculous.

    1. Why is it "ridiculous" to suggest that we should draw a line well before we get anywhere near the worst atrocities? I would think that that's common sense. If you want to be the sort of person who would have strenuously opposed Nazism in the early 1930s, for example, you presumably need to be sensitive to early signs of creeping authoritarianism and inhumanity -- the kind of signs that in many cases might turn out to be "false alarms" (in the sense that things don't get massively worse than the early bad actions themselves, though of course they are plenty bad enough in their own right, by liberal standards). I really don't think it's a good idea to give authoritarians the benefit of the doubt for as long as it remains remotely possible to do so.

    2. Hi, Richard. I certainly agree that people should have opposed the Nazi ideology and its proponents far before things got to the gas chamber stage. But what was the best way to achieve that? Trying to persuade less committed Nazis of one's acquaintance that the party was going in a terrible direction? Sounds right to me. Opposing Nazi policies, and arguing against them? Absolutely. But would the best way of resisting Nazi ideology necessarily have involved throwing Nazis out of restaurants? I don't see it. It seems much better to me to keep the lines of communication open with one's opponents.

      How likely do you think _you_ would be to reconsider your views if some people who belong to a political party you think is immoral were to scream at you and ask you to leave a restaurant? If a friend of yours who shares your views had this happen, would you be more, or less, inclined to take the objections of the people who did this seriously? I sympathize with the spirit of opposition to these policies, but this really doesn't seem like a productive approach.

    3. Maybe so, I don't have a strong view on the tactical question. I just think it's important to establish that proto-fascists don't have any moral right to respect or toleration. Maybe we should, for purely instrumental reasons, treat them better than they actually deserve. (I'm skeptical though. The point is not to "change Nazis' minds", as if that were remotely realistic. The point, I take it, is to raise the costs of publicly violating the norms of civil democracy. Expressions of hostility can certainly be successful at achieving a silencing effect / reinforcing norms about acceptable public expression and behaviour. Even academic philosophy has obvious (albeit tamer) examples of this -- topics surrounding gender, disability, etc., where the range of publicly expressed views is obviously much narrower than the range of privately held views.)

    4. Hi, Richard.

      Why do you think it's not remotely realistic that a Nazi's mind could be changed (not to imply that the current case is on a moral par with sending people to gas chambers, but sticking with the thought experiment)? There are several examples, I think, of just that happening. It's true that there are many cases of die-hard Nazis whose minds would not have been changed, no matter what. But there are also fanatical devotees of every belief system.

      There are many people (not including me) who feel strongly that a nation-wide massacre is taking place through legalized abortion. Following the logic that seems to be suggested here and elsewhere, it seems right for such people to refuse service to, humiliate, and shout at, those who would defend abortion rights. Would it really be a good idea to open that can of worms, too? What are the rules to be, here? It doesn't look good to me. Where does it all end up?

      I agree with you that academic culture has, by using open hostility against dissenters, achieved a silencing effect that has led -- for the short term, at least -- to a reduction in some bad remarks and behaviors. But I can't help but feel that this approach is deeply short-sighted. Every time hostility rather than reasoning or other civil means are used to shame people into silence or lose professional or public status, that shortcut is reinforced in general. It is always quicker and easier, and requires far less thought or intelligence, to be hostile than to try to understand and reason things through. When hostility is seen to meet with success or approval, the habit becomes entrenched and is applied to more and more minor things, particular expressions of hostility are seen as morally praiseworthy by one's peers. So, as I see it, a greater and greater range of behaviors and opinions is apt to be met with hostility with the accelerating progression. But the targets of the hostility lose much more from each case of mobbing than the hostile mobbers gain, and are very likely to nurture quiet grudges about it. These factors, together, accelerate the inevitable backlash and make it likely to be swift and marked by deep resentment.

      When the pendulum does swing back harshly, as I suspect it will in not too long, the rules of conduct we've followed while we've held sway will matter. Whenever I see the standards of respectful discourse being replaced by hostility, I immediately have a vision of how things will be when the tables are turned and we're the ones objecting to the hostility. And I always picture the newly powerful smirking, "Oh, really? But you did the same to us when you had the upper hand." It's not a pleasant picture.

    5. I largely agree. (Lest I gave the wrong impression, I certainly don't endorse the example of academic mobbing / silencing! Merely noting its apparent efficacy.)

      That is, I'm not defending incivility in general. The proposed "rule" is extremely constrained: shunning, refusal of service, and other forms of (still non-violent) protest may be warranted in case of public officials who have gone beyond the pale. I don't see this as a particularly slippery slope. (For example, the ethics of abortion is obviously subject to reasonable dispute, so cannot reasonably be regarded as beyond the pale.)


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