Elizabeth: Daniel and I have decided to write this post as a discussion, even though we are largely in agreement. We’ve both watched the conscious and celebrated rise of incivility as political tactic within the Democratic party with some dismay (see Daniel’s post about his experiences as a Hillary delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention). [Updated before publishing to add: when we started writing this post, the Matt Bruenig brouhaha had just started to be discussed on Twitter. He had not yet been fired. So it may look like initially as if we are avoiding The Very Obvious Current Conversation; we address it below.]
Having stated our basic position at the beginning, though, let me take the opening part of the conversation to make a case for the opposition — that is, sometimes we need incivility. Because I think it’s true. Then I’ll loop back later, after Daniel has had his say, to argue why I think incivility has been inappropriately used lately in the current Democratic Party infighting.
As a freelance journalist, I belong to a profession a proud tenet of which is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Let’s take that second clause, about afflicting the comfortable. Comfortable people often do not give up their comfort readily.
The most obvious examples involve people being asked to surrender some privileged status. Comfortable people don’t like being less comfortable. There are times when only rudeness will wake people up. There are times when only violence will wake people up – there are such things as justified wars.
I am going to admit two things which are horribly horribly uncomfortable for me to admit as examples, realizing that my admission of them justly cause people will think ill of me. As well they should, actually. I think ill of myself for both of these things. They were wrong and insensitive and thoughtless and self-centered. 1) I used to think being trans was a mental disorder. (Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m even writing that, I so no longer think that way, I am so so sorry I was such an asshole.) 2) I used to think that being disabled was totally obviously a worse way to live than not being disabled. When my disabled son was born, I thought a tragedy had befallen our family. (Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m even writing that, I am so so sorry I was such an asshole.)
In the case of trans people, my mind did not get changed by incivility at all. I simply read persuasive writing, had trans students, followed trans people on Twitter, and came to realize what a shitty person I had been. (I’m so sorry.)
In the case of disability, it took something more. I taught ethics issues in class. I had read disabled authors without really digesting what they said. I was aware that in general disabled people report that their lives are as happy as people without disabilities, and I somehow told myself that they were self-deluded (it’s “adaptive preference”) – without seeing that for the total question-begging nonsense that is. It took the incivility, if you will, of my child being born disabled, of having no choice in the matter, of suddenly living a new life and seeing social injustices firsthand, and not just listening to people talk about them, for me to see how completely fucking wrong I was. (I’m so sorry.)
So. I for one, would like to admit that surely there are times when incivility is justified, even obligatory. I will argue later that now, amongst Democrats, is not one of those times, but first, I’d like to turn it over to Daniel.
Daniel: I do not disagree at all with the notion that there are times when incivility is not merely appropriate, but necessary.
If I were the parent of a lead-poisoned child in Flint, you can bet I would throw civility to hell. I think communities of color who protest being victimized by ill-trained or frankly racist law enforcement personnel are under no obligation whatsoever to be civil. It is no great struggle to think of all manner of example where calls for civility are a canard to distract from the underlying issues.
But I absolutely think that civility is of value in our civic discourse. I neither think it should be abandoned lightly, nor should its abandonment be treated like some badge of moral purity or superiority.
The underlying reason (and I’ll get to the ramifications later in our conversation, I suspect) is that being uncivil makes people feel bad.
I realize that saying it so plainly smacks of being unintellectual, of being small-minded and childish. People’s actual feelings are lesser considerations when talking about politics and policy and such, if they are considerations at all. I imagine it will seem frankly risible to some that I would be so silly as to think them important in the first place.
However, I actually do think they are important. I think treating other people’s feelings with care is not only a means to getting what you want, but also an end unto itself. Those who behave badly most certainly ought to be called out for it, and poor reasoning should be identified and argued against. But it is ill to cause others pain or distress through carelessness or malice, and speaks ill of those who do so without compunction.
And speaking of question-begging, there is nothing that begs the question more than arrogating the right to be uncivil. It presumes that one’s own beliefs are so just and one’s thinking so correct that they sweep away all obligation to consider the possibility of good faith in one’s opponent, and conveniently allows a person to go after that opponent’s character or intelligence out of hand.
Incivility is therefore not only hurtful to actual human beings, but corrosive to our ability to have meaningful, productive conversation about matters that warrant it.
Elizabeth: I agree that, incivility makes people feed bad, and that in itself is bad. It seems to me that plenty of the times I’ve seen civility itself derided recently, it was derided unnecessarily. As if respect for civility itself was a bourgeois attitude that needed to be destroyed.
Further, some people are more likely to feel worse about it than others, and that seems to make it inherently a worse thing. There’s a gender issue here, frankly. I know when I have online harassers (not that I’ve had many), I always have personal safety concerns. I suppose too, I’d have some pretty serious concerns if someone was yelling at me menacingly holding a chair. I think I’d have some, but fewer personal safety concerns if I were a 6′ man. I’d still have concerns even if he dropped the chair and was simply yelling. If a stranger has dropped all niceties such that he is yelling at me, I’m not sure what other niceties he’ll drop, so still – I’m worried for personal safety. A tactic that has such disparate effects on men and women seems an unfair one. (If the in-person harasser is female, I have some, but fewer, personal safety concerns.)
I don’t think the “Bernie Bros” charge is fair. I do not associate support of Sanders with sexism by any means. This article criticizing so-called Bernie Bros made me quite irritable when I first read it, since it’s all anecdote and no data. However, I do wonder (totally anecdotally) if the very concept of “Bernie Bro” is born out of a disproportionate discomfort felt by those criticized. Women, quite reasonably, feel much worse when they suffer uncivil attacks. They suffer disproportionately, even when experiencing the same attack. (The fact that it is reasonable to be more disturbed by incivility as a woman does not by any means justify painting support for Bernie Sanders as necessarily sexist.)
Turning to another issue. The incivility would make more sense to me if the attacks came from a third party. Of course, then, wreck the Democrats!
But this incivility is within the same party. Parties have to follow procedures to get shit done. Beloved friend, commenter, and totally not a neo-Maoist Chris said of the uncivil Left in a comment on an earlier post:
I do not think you’re wrong: it is a movement driven by emotion, largely anger. The left in America has always been driven by anger, this has been all the truer over the last 20 odd years as it was first lampooned and then decried as traitorous by the political class. Meanwhile they, the left, watched as that same political class gutted the welfare system, ramped up the war on drugs and add the prison-industrial complex, enacted NAFTA, and then entered increasingly large and destructive imperialist wars. Then the collapse.
The campaign and first year of the Obama administration were something of a calming, at least for the less radical left: there seemed to be a promise of a liberal-progressive left coalition, encouraged both in statements against war and police state, and by a health care plan sold as a first step toward universality. Then the public option was dropped so easily, and the “recovery” was jobless and full of debt, and the left became angry again.
Clinton embodies everything I mentioned in that paragraph as inciting anger, as does the rest of the party establishment, and perhaps the party itself. As outsiders, they are naturally distrustful; as angry outsiders, they are naturally disdainful, not only of the party’s leaders and procedures, but also for the idea that those people are even capable of being worked with. They don’t want a coalition, they eat a coup. This isn’t a merger to them, it is an insurgency.
The smart ones know they will lose every battle, but the aim is to win the war.
I totally get, especially, the anger toward the triangulation of the 90s. I think the anger toward recent Obama years is better placed at Republican intransigence, but whatever. Parties are organizations made up of people who have basically similar ideological commitments and who agree to follow a certain set of rules. If the goal is takeover of the Democratic party, well, why why take it over at all if its procedures and leaders are so corrupt that it shouldn’t be allowed to go about its basic business? Why not third party? It would be far more fatal to the Democrats. Why deal with this totally corrupt machinery at all?
If the Democrat party is still incorruptible enough to be capable of being worked with, then its rules ought to be followed with some civility, albeit with protest.
Daniel: You stole “neo-Maoist” from me. I demand you admit it.
But in all seriousness, I think you are quite right about those who view civility as some kind of contemptible bourgeois value. It brings to mind a particular leftist writer (and long-ago contributor to the parent blog) who is as well-known for his vitriolic rhetoric on social media as he is for his writing. The plain, persistent nastiness of his behavior is something in which he takes evident pride, and which I got to experience firsthand when he sicced his lackeys upon me when I had the temerity to annoy him. And in the space of time between when we started this conversation and now, yet another leftist blogger with a similarly harsh manner on Twitter (documented in the article I see you linked above) has lost his blogging job because of it. (I feel compelled to note that my own interactions with Matt Bruenig have been nil, but I’ve long considered his wife Elizabeth a friend, and our interactions have always been cordial, even in disagreement.)
I see nothing admirable about such behavior. Incivility may be a necessarily evil, but I refuse to accept that it is ever something to be celebrated.
And yes, within the context of the functioning of the Democratic Party, the effects of incivility are particularly pernicious. As I said in the same conversation with Chris that you quoted above, I have very little tolerance for efforts to shout down debate. I don’t even like it when it applies to people I despise, including efforts by protesters to shut down rallies supporting the odious man the GOP is nominating in defiance of all sanity. But when it gums up the gears of the party one ostensibly supports, it not only does not accomplish anything, it prevents anyone from accomplishing anything.
I don’t want to get stuck in the weeds of the various gripes the Sanders campaign has with how the primary campaign has played out. Unsurprisingly, I am not convinced by them. But your mileage, as they say, may vary.
But if you’re going to use a particular apparatus to effect change, then it makes absolutely no sense to kneecap that apparatus as it goes about its work. It was particularly infuriating in my own personal experience with the Convention in Maine, where the Sanders supporters booed people speaking against an amendment they liked, apparently without stopping to remember that they had a delegate majority and thus could be confident in its passing no matter what was said. All they did was slow down business and alienate the very people who they need to be winning over.
Incivility is hurtful. It is ineffective. And it is contrary to the advancement of civic communication.
Elizabeth: I totally did steal neo-Maoist from Daniel, ’tis true.
In case anyone made it this far, just a couple more words to say. I don’t want to comment on the specifics of l’Affaire Bruenig because I don’t know all the facts at hand. But I want to address one more argument in favor of incivility I’ve seen floating around in defense of him, and it is this: one woman he insulted is so dreadful that there is nothing for her but to spew insults at her.
I don’t wish to adjudicate her dreadfulness. Let’s set the actual person aside, and consider a pretend dreadful person name Barley Chickarina. Let’s say Ms. Chickarina’s done terrible things. She’s lied and cost thousands of people their jobs at her soup company through poor decision-making.
A critic of Ms. Chickarina could hurl insults at her, and I suppose she deserves them in a way. She’s done bad things. But what good does it do? It’ll hurt her feelings, sure. What does that add to the world? Will justice be done then? Is the Left going to turn into a squadron of vigilantes bent on doling out mortification?
Why not, for Barley Chickarina or any political person with whom one disagrees, simply point out what the person has done wrong and why it is wrong? It is far more likely to convince Ms. Chickarina of the error of her ways, as well as others.
There is a reason ad hominem arguments are fallacies.