Monday, January 29, 2007

Civility and the Limits of Abstraction

One thing that's bound to come up in a few of these recent discussions, that Darleen even alluded to here:

Their opprobrium is not for America's enemies, but for its own citizens. From the unseemliness of Jane Fonda, recipient of such opportunities that only this country has had to offer her to the spittle-flecked rants of others

--is how all-fired uncivil The Left is, with their opprobrium and their unseemliness and their neverending spittle-flecked rants. It just isn't nice, how they do. They are so Not Our Kinds of People.

I was emailed a link to a post about this a few months ago that I thought was quite good on the subject of civility. Let's see if I still have it . . .

. . . and, no, I don't, but I found it for you anyway. Read it, and try to read it with an open mind, because I'm in about 50% agreement with what Judith has to say about relations between Democrats and Republicans:

They [Democrats] always start political conversations. None of us do. We have learned that no one wants to argue issues on their merits, that the room gets very quiet and unfriendly, that people start screaming at you, or rant the most loopy beliefs and conspiracy theories. We just assume that is not a topic anyone can treat in a dispassionate manner.

But they always provoke political conversations. Well, not conversations, which would be enjoyable and enlightening. They make pronouncements. And look around the room to see if anyone not only doesn't agree, but doesn't agree enthusiastically. As a friend deep in the closet in the theater world put it, you can't just sit quietly and wait for the topic to change. No, you are suspect if you do not vocally endorse the official opinion of the group. You thought you were in a project meeting or a coffee klatch or a dinner party, and all of a sudden it has turned into the Communist Youth League Self-Criticism Session.

And then, after they have assumed, because no one in the room has fangs or horns, that a political support group is what everyone wants (and they do, except for you) - if you express your difference of opinion, they are offended that you spoiled the intimate feeling in the room by being other than they assumed, based on their superficial reading of you. In other words, they brought up politics, but they are the only ones who get to play. If you join in, you are the one who soured the conversation by bringing up politics. Because they weren't trying to start a political discussion, they just wanted to commiserate with friends. You party pooper.

Yes, I have had experiences like that. I'm in a mood to borrow off of Chris Clarke today, so let's call such incidents the Inbred Cousins of the Berkeley Theater Experience:

It reminds me of sitting in a movie theater in Berkeley with Becky and Ron and Joe watching O Brother Where Art Thou, and having a handful of the audience members applaud when the Cyclops Klan character played by John Goodman got spanked by the burning cross. Because, you know, it’s possible that the rest of the audience in Berkeley might actually have felt support for the Klansmen in the movie, and only by the brave action of booing Klansmen in a dark movie house in Berkeley, California could those folks make sure that their stalwart opposition to cartoon evil was made known in every possible venue. One wonders if those folks hiss “sexist!” at Snidely Whiplash when watching the Cartoon Network.

So I get where Judith's coming from on "they just wanted to commiserate with friends." It's really a passive-aggressive way of ranking your friends by ideological purity--and that makes the person doing it the real party-pooper, not the poker pal who turns out to favor the flat tax.

I'm also in strong agreement with this side note of Judith's:

Spirited argument is sexy to me (think William Powell and Myrna Loy), and a marriage with someone who disagrees with me on various issues sounds energizing and playful and always interesting. (I would insert a link to Mary Matalin and James Carville here, but I think Carville is just too weird.) But most people don't feel that way anymore, at least not liberals. Champions of diversity, they want lovers and friends just like themselves.

I know one couple who broke up over politics. (Well, the wife tells me, there were deeper problems, and that just exacerbated them.) But I know several couples who just agree to disagree, and it's clear they are a team and politics is just not a good enough reason for estrangement.

. . . not least because that last sentence about sums up my own relationship. If you think we haven't had some horrible, heated clashes over foreign policy in this house, think again. But I don't run and cry to this blog every time it happens because I like knowing that the person I'm with isn't a doormat, that he'll disagree with me boisterously and often if the subject's important to him.

Here's where I have my problems with the current conservative view of civility, though. Speaking of Josh Trevino, Judith says:

If you read this blog you know I disagree with Josh's description of and attitude towards the gay marriage movement, but I think his diagnosis of liberal cultishness is right on. And I know that if Josh and I got to sit down for a cup of coffee - as we kept trying to do when he was in town for the GOP convention in 04 and never found the time - we would enjoy each other's company and have a friendly argument about it. (Hell, Josh had been reading my blog for over a year when he emailed me to let me know he would be in town, and he wanted to hoist a few anyway.) And I know if we each had three kids the same age, he would allow them to play together even if I had an Andrew Sullivan magnet on my fridge.

The reason why Judith and Josh could have "a friendly argument" about gay marriage is that neither Judith nor Josh is personally affected by the issue. Neither of them is gay. Neither of them is struggling to obtain health insurance coverage for a same-sex partner. Neither of them is dealing personally with any of the issues related to the inability of same-sex couples to obtain legal recognition of their partnerships. They can have a friendly argument, a dispassionate argument, because for most heterosexuals, gay marriage is an abstract issue. I mean, it's just politics. It's an issue a heterosexual can care very, very much about, but at the end of the day, a heterosexual retains the privilege of being able to throw that issue overboard, of being able to table that issue in order to emphasize some other issue that is personally more important to him or her--like, say, terrorism. And I ought to know, because that's exactly what this heterosexual did in the 2004 elections.

"I really hate social conservatives. But, ooh, Kerry threw his medals and loves teh terror! I'm voting for Bush. Besides, if the terrorists win there won't be any homosexuals anyway. We'll all be dead."

I'm not going to get into whether that was a "just fine" or a "totally not okay" thing to do. We all have to prioritize our decisions as best we see fit. I AM, however, going to assert that having cast my vote as I did, I would have some nerve objecting if a homosexual friend got uncivil with me for doing it. "Well, fuck you too, Ilyka," is not an uncivil response in that context.

The problem with "relax, it's just politics" is that it can only be "just politics" when you abstract out the other human beings affected by those politics. Sometimes you have to do a little abstraction just to begin talking about an issue. Sometimes you have to start dispassionately. But it is not civil to stay dispassionate. It is not civil to forget you are always, always talking about the problems of other human beings.

I always used to wonder what some liberals were going on about when they'd say something made them feel "erased." "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," I'd chirp back, and wander off to pick daisies with a song in my heart and a spring in my step. Silly liberals, always erasing themselves like that! But this sort of thing, this is what they are talking about--the colossal arrogance it takes, not to discuss issues that don't affect one personally (for all of us who are not either Iraqi citizens, or active-duty members of the military, do that every time we discuss the war), but to expect that the actual human beings who are affected by those issues personally should not become personally offended by one's friendly discussions of "just politics."

Here's another example: Ann Althouse, of whom you will recall I am not exactly a fan, shares her reaction to some of the panel discussions at the Liberty Fund colloquium, whatever the hell that is. I am going to quote a lot of it, but (are you sitting down?) I really think you should read the whole thing:

I came away surprised that some people, especially the libertarians, were hardcore, true believers, wedded to an abstract version of idea and unwilling to look at how it played out in the real world. I had come to the conference thinking I had more in common with libertarians but was quite put off by them in person. By contrast, the conservative position, because it had more to do with the real-life context, was much less troubling to me. This surprised me, because I disagree with so much of what social conservatives favor.

. . .

What disturbed me was the assertion in the writings that the public accommodations provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were pernicious. And when I said that at the conference, a lot of the participates immediately challenged me. Did I think the law was right?!! This is what I mean by the excessive belief in the libertarian principle at the abstract level. These folks -- including Bailey, I think -- would have left restaurants and hotels to continue discriminating against black people as long as they pleased. Someone asserted that the free market would solve the problem better than government regulation. I said that the restaurant in the case about the constitutionality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in fact made more money by seating only white customers and serving take-out to black people. One other person at the table agreed, but the point was pushed past. It didn't fit the abstraction.

And more from Ann, responding to Ron Bailey's remarks, which I've placed here in italics. I have also added emphasis to those points of Ann's I particularly applaud:

One session at the end of conference was devoted to Meyer's defense of federalism-his idea is that the constitutional structure that divides state power among political subdivisions tends to limit the power of the state over individuals, thus enlarging the sphere of personal liberty. The tragic historical abuse of federalism was state-mandated racial segregation which Meyer defended. As I understood Meyer's argument, he believed that preserving federalism as bulwark [sic] against the growth of central government power was more important to him than vindicating the rights of black Americans.

Big of him, huh? He really believed his principles, so deeply that black people were just going to have to suffer for his beliefs. What a guy! But you tell me: How do I know he loved his principles first and felt just terrible about how other people were going to have to pay the price for his lofty commitments or whether he actually came to love his ideas because of where they would lead? Why do you love the abstractions you love? To ask this question is not to fail to be an intellectual. To fail to ask this question is to fall short as a thinker.

I know everybody here just fell over dead because I not only quoted Ann approvingly, I quoted her approvingly on at least the tangential subject of what defines an intellectual. Blame my father, who has always been fond of saying, "When you're right, you're right." Here, Ann's right, and Ron Bailey is being repulsive. For that matter, so is Radley Balko:

Apparently what so offended Althouse is that anyone could possibly believe that a private business owner should be permitted to privately discriminate on the basis of race. This, to her, isn't a position that's compatible with civil discourse. Or, at the very least, if you hold this position, the burden is on you to prove to Althouse that you aren't ignorant, racist, or sociopathic.

Well, yes. Like Hubris once said:

It's interesting how this rhetorical method has become sort of a stupidity-powered shield against being called what you truly are, e.g.: "Ohhhh, I said 'nigger' so I guess now you're going to call me a RAAAACIST!"

Yep, you called it, asshole.

If your commitment to the abstract principle of "liberty" outweighs your commitment to the concrete treatment of human beings, don't look all who-farted? when someone suggests you don't value human beings very much. I italicize "abstract" and "concrete" deliberately here, because fucking hell, libertarians, Ayn Rand went over this distinction. She went over it A LOT, in great detail, with much verbiage. You're supposed to have read that shit, libertarians. No Howard Roark gingerbread-men cookies for you!

This mixing-up (and often deliberate confusing of) the difference between the abstract and the concrete is what's leaving too many on the right side of the blogosphere baffled by so-called leftist incivility. It is not uncivil to become offended by bigotry. Keep that in mind, and see if your dinner parties and cocktail hours don't run a little more smoothly from here on out.

21 comments:

gennimcmahon said...

I so applaud this, it is exactly the problem--we are somehow allergic to people getting "all excited" about politics. It's how we distance ourselves from the plight of others, "Look at how upset she's getting about that sexist joke. That's so out of line, it's Just A Joke!"

I am not obligated to be "civil" to someone who drops racial slurs or sexism into a conversation, and when I do behave civilly, I give tacit premission to them to continue. Yet, I've certainly been made to feel like the bad guy for ruining a party conversation by saying, "That's utterly racist and unacceptable." I guess that's how the powers that be stay in power; they take away the social appropriateness of outrage. Look at you getting, all, like, outraged and righteously indignant. Ewwwww!

Lesley said...

Yes. Civility has somehow now become defined solely as "saying things politely." If, for example, you say something racist or sexist, but you say it without cursing or overt upset, then you're "civil." If you respond to that comment with curses or outrage, you are "uncivil." Demeaning someone because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation is uncivil on its face. Reacting to that by becoming upset is perfectly appropriate. Ditto with reacting to someone who prioritizes something else over our lives, regardless of whether their priorities are justified or not. It is not "shrill," "hysterical," or "spittle-flecked." That's just a way to silence people anyway.

As for the cursing, I swear, the blogosphere is filled with Queen Victorias. "Oh heavens. How vulgar!"

Sheelzebub said...

Holy crap woman! You are on FIRE.

Tom said...

In any system some liberty gets sacrificed. Both Republicans and Democrats are in favor of sacrificing liberties, they just disagree on which and whose liberties get sacrificed. And consequently which liberties they get all self-righteous about.

And all politics affects someone somewhere personally. I'm strongly affected by tax rates or the minimum wage. So are millions of people? Does that give me the right to throw tantrums every time the issue comes up, or is that only reserved for specific minorities who get a pass on account of being "oppressed"

If we can't have civility on things we care about, then we certainly won't have them for long on things we don't care about.

ilyka said...

And for the record: Screw you for equating the actions of the US military or Bush with the barbaric shit they do in those medieval tribal gangs over there.

Do you see me whining about how uncivil this was, Tom? And it wasn't even accurate, because I never equated the U.S. military with the Fedayeen. Neither did Zeyad. He merely pointed out that bias isn't the exclusive province of "the mainstream media" or "liberals" or "appeasers" or whatever-the-hell-else Republicans are blaming this week. We ALL have biases. Zeyad revealed some of them by saying he thought people would have behaved differently towards him were the players switched around in the scenario, and he was not wrong about that.

But Beth's got a bias in favor of the military. Fine, I can deal with that. I can also show that this bias led her to behave very uncivilly towards me, and I can roll with that without shutting her down or erasing her.

I'm strongly affected by tax rates or the minimum wage.

Right. If you own a small business, for example, of course you're concerned about increases to the minimum wage. If you're making sacrifices like going without food or health care just to pay the taxman, of course you're concerned about tax rates. I get that.

I'm not advocating for a grand Right To Tantrum; that'd be silly. I am saying it's a low, deceptive trick to call a civility violation reflexively the way, say, Bailey did to Althouse. In that particular context, Ann was not being uncivil. The people saying, "Screw black people because I'm all about liber-teeeee (for white business owners)" were being uncivil.

Lesley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

The problem is what's abstract and what's concrete, we can all give examples, but where do you really draw the line.

This is an age where everyone aspires to be victimized and take everything personally, and that goes for the right as much as the left. Civility becomes completely impossible in that atmosphere, especially once everyone gets on their moral high horse.

After all if the other person is a baby killers and you're denying my right to marry and steve over there is supporting the war overseas that sent my brother off to die and Janet voted to take away my guns; all we can do is live in the perpetual state of yelling at each other.

Sure some things are abstract, but plenty of things are concrete too.

Tom said...

It's not just subjective though, it's emotionally subjective Lesley.

The impact something has on you is going to depend on a bunch of things and a comment you can shrug off one day sets off a volcano the next.

That's why setting up some sort of standard for getting a free pass on civility just furthers the problem. Once civility becomes optional for subjective reasons, there's no point in demanding civility from anyone anymore.

After all everyone has the right to be subjectively affected by something in a way that crosses a line to them.

And then the yelling never stops.

ilyka said...

Damnit, Lesley, where'd your comment go? I LIKED your comment.

Lesley said...

Sorry, Tom, I deleted my initial comment because I seriously regretted the snarkiness of the first paragraph. So now your response makes no sense. I had hoped I'd gotten to it before anyone else saw it. Such is life.

I think we might be having different definitions of "civility" here. So before I comment further, would you define what you mean when you use the word?

Lesley said...

Oh hell, Ilyka. Too late! I did send you an e-mail about it.

OK, I suck.

Lesley said...

OK, I think I can remember most of what I originally said, now with 33% less snarkiness! [No, I do not *need* to quantify everything. Really. Shut up.]

I objected to the phrase "throwing a tantrum" because it implies that getting upset over something that significantly affects you is childish. It's not.

Tom, if someone were to suggest raising your tax rate to 95%, you'd be perfectly justified in getting upset. [This is not the same as "throwing a tantrum".] Presumably because it would affect your ability to feed yourself and your family.

Is there a relationship between level of upset and significance of impact? Sure. If you raised your voice because someone said "I don't think orange is your color," that would be an over-reaction. If, on the other hand, you raised your voice because someone said "Your child is a fucking moron," then that wouldn't be an over-reaction. Is this subjective? Yes, but we deal with subjective issues every day.

Tom said...

Sometimes the timing works out. I wasn't offended by your comment Leslie, even if it did make me sigh a tiny bit when people attach connotations to a word I used.

Anonymous said...

Here's what bugs me: I get that you're very close to an issue. That's fine, we all are on certain issues to varying extents. But if you're so close to something that you can't talk about it without screaming or breaking down in to tears, don't bring it up with people who may or may not be sympathetic.

You're gay and very sensitive on the gay rights issue, because you're fighting for partner healthcare and such? Great, I get that. I see that. Please refrain from bringing up the FMA at Thanksgiving table, or a friendly party, or whatever. And if you do, and someone disagrees with you, please don't freak out like somebody just shot your dog.

This, of course, goes for right and left. I don't talk about abortion with people I don't know very well because 90% of the time it's a freakout from either side of the aisle if you aren't with them all the way. It's too close of an issue on both sides.

Responding to insults, whether intentional or otherwise, with anger is acceptable. What I can't stand is the frigging stress-puppies that go around chasing that kind of static. Get a blog for chrissakes, have your foodfights there, that's what they're there for.

Anonymous said...

Hell, I've deleted several comments I painstaikingly hammered in for this blog because they're too close, and lord knows, when I finally break and start bitching at Ilyka, I want it to be sensible, civil bitching.

or at least sensible.

ilyka said...

What I can't stand is the frigging stress-puppies that go around chasing that kind of static.

Like?

And what if, say, a white guy uses the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to post that, say, since race isn't really biological, racism doesn't exist? Is he "chasing static?" Oh, no. He's just trying to have a dispassionate discussion about something that doesn't affect him personally.

I've said it in this post, I've said it in these comments, but too many people are glossing right fucking over it, so let me say it again, maybe a little clearer this time:

Each of us has the right to choose what matters to us. We do not have the right to tell others what should or should not matter to them. That goes double if their experiences are ones we are constitutionally incapable of experiencing ourselves.

I don't know what it's like to live in Israel; I'm not going to tell an Israeli how to get along with Palestinians. I don't know what it's like to be a gay man; I'm not going to tell Andrew Sullivan he's overemphasizing the importance of same-sex marriage. I don't know what it's like to be Mexican; I'm not going to tell Mexicans what to think about the Mexican-American border. I don't know what it's like to be black; I'm not going to tell black people to sit down and stay civil while my white libertarian friends and I debate whether the Civil Rights Act was bad law or not.

This is basic decency, not rocket science.

Tom said...

Each of us has the right to choose what matters to us. We do not have the right to tell others what should or should not matter to them.

And accordingly each of us has the right to decide whether what matters to you, matters to us. And if it doesn't, then it's just not going to. No matter how p.c. it might be. Which is why feeling entitled to be outraged just leads to shouting matches.

I have no problems getting along with people I disagree with and even those whose views I find repulsive... and the best way to do that is avoid the topic. If they want to discuss the topic, then their sense of entitlement to be outraged doesn't make any impression on me.

Lesley said...

I have no problems getting along with people I disagree with and even those whose views I find repulsive... and the best way to do that is avoid the topic. If they want to discuss the topic, then their sense of entitlement to be outraged doesn't make any impression on me.

Well, that's very special. However, I have to say that I'm going to have problems getting along with a neo-Nazi, for example. I'd like to think that would be true even if my father hadn't been born Jewish in Austria in 1931 (his parents got the immediate family out in 1939, but grandparents, aunts, and uncles were not so fortunate), but for sure that's got something to do with it. And I seriously doubt it would be possible for me to have a dispassionate conversation with them about "The Holocaust: Fact or Fiction". And it's not the sort of thing where I could just say "Oh well, I suppose we disagree on that. But we can still get along. Let's just discuss the Yankees game instead."

If you think that derives from a sense of "entitlement" (and I don't know if you do), than I guess I would have nothing further to say to you. Your lack of empathy would be far too large for me to want to waste time I could better spend on other activities.

Tom said...

Is anyone asking you to get along with neo-nazis?

And can we use more extreme examples maybe? Like child molesters or the undead corpse of Slobodan Milosevic.

I never said you're obligated to be buddies with every single conceivable person on earth. But the reality is if you're politically aware, there's a lot of people out there whose views you'll find repulsive and vice versa. Hopefully not mass murder repulsive. (Though anti-abortion types will often view you as a Nazi too.)

You can avoid them or avoid politics.

Lesley said...

Is anyone asking you to get along with neo-nazis?

Did I claim they were? You made a point about yourself. I made an opposing point about myself. Your point was effectively "I can do this thing because I don't have some sense of entitlement to outrage." Mine was effectively "The inability to do that thing isn't always about a sense of entitlement to outrage." Not "Waaah, people are trying to force me to get along with neo-Nazis."

And can we use more extreme examples maybe? Like child molesters or the undead corpse of Slobodan Milosevic.

We can do anything we decide to. I chose a specific example that has great personal resonance to me because of my background. It's not all about the shock value. I was relating something particularly personal, because that can often help to humanize a situation, where an abstract example cannot. I see that failed in this instance.

I never said you're obligated to be buddies with every single conceivable person on earth. But the reality is if you're politically aware, there's a lot of people out there whose views you'll find repulsive and vice versa. Hopefully not mass murder repulsive. (Though anti-abortion types will often view you as a Nazi too.)

NSS. Your comment wasn't the inarguable premise that "Sometimes you're bound to run into people you disagree with." Nor was it the equally inarguable premise "You don't have to be friends with the entire world." I would hardly bother to respond to things as blatantly obvious as those are. Your comment was about how if you express upset about their views, you've got a sense of entitlement to outrage. That's what I was responding to.

You can avoid them or avoid politics.

It's not always the best idea just to avoid people because their views are objectionable. In fact, a lot of the time it's best to challenge their views* because they're objectionable. If you don't challenge them, you can't prevent them from gaining traction. If I don't challenge them myself, because I personally find them upsetting, but instead I go find someone else to challenge them who might find them less upsetting, two things. First is I run the risk that person will just decide they don't care enough to really challenge the idea, allowing it to gain traction. Second is I'm being passive-aggressive, and I'm not sure why that might be preferable.

*It is clear that you can't simultaneously challenge their views and completely avoid them, right?

Anonymous said...

You're gay and very sensitive on the gay rights issue, because you're fighting for partner healthcare and such? Great, I get that. I see that. Please refrain from bringing up the FMA at Thanksgiving table, or a friendly party, or whatever. And if you do, and someone disagrees with you, please don't freak out like somebody just shot your dog.

You do realize that you just underscored the whole point of this discussion, right? Basically you just said "Please don't try and talk about things that might make me or anyone else uncomfortable in personal terms because it is uncivil and impolite."