July 1, 2018

In Defense of Civility in Our Political Discourse

Photo by Martha Soukup [CC Attribution 2.0 Generic]
Is civility dead? When it comes to our political discourse, is civility a remnant of the past? And if we have in fact killed off civility in this context, were we right to do so? If the content I see on Twitter is any indication, many anti-Trump activists would say "yes." They seem to regard civility as holding them back, serving to maintain the status quo, evidence of "privilege," and so on. I happen to think they are wrong, and I'd like to offer some thoughts on why I think that.

First, I think that the anti-Trump activists are setting up a false dichotomy with civility on one side and activism on the other. I see no reason why civility cannot go hand-in-hand with activism, protests, civil disobedience, and the like. Being civil to others does not mean refraining from all forms of activism. It might mean refraining from certain tactics like screaming at people while they are trying to eat a meal or name-calling, but there is little reason to think these tactics accomplish much more besides strengthening the other side anyway. Treating others civilly can easily be reconciled with most forms of activism, especially the effective ones. It should never be confused with inaction, apathy, or support for the status quo.

Second, deliberate and repeated incivility provokes a backlash and strengthens the other side. Remember when Rep. Joe Wilson yelled "You lie" during President Obama's address to Congress? If so, you probably remember the impact this had on the left. They organized around it. It energized them. It became a symbolic event around which they united. When the anti-Trump left embraces incivility, the right notices and mobilizes in response.

Third, I think that most adults realize that "But they started it" is a weak argument for treating others poorly. Many of the anti-Trump left seem to have decided that the manner in which President Obama was treated by some on the right excuses them in treating President Trump's supporters poorly. There is no question that Obama was treated poorly, but this in no way justifies the left's recent efforts to demonize Trump supporters.

Fourth, I'd like to encourage us to remember that political activism is supposed to have a goal. That is, political activism is supposed to be designed to accomplish something. Although many of the anti-Trump activists do not appear to be goal-directed, I believe that some probably do have goals toward which they are working. And that raises the question of which tactics are likely to be effective in pursuit of their goals, which may be ineffective, and which may actually undermine their goals. It seems to me that some forms of incivility have a very real potential to undermine many of their goals. If we can agree that not all activist tactics are equally effective, then it makes sense that we'd want to use those with the best chance of succeeding and avoid those that may harm our progress toward our goals.

Finally, politics is and has always been about compromise. We don't always like it, but that is the reality. As long as there is more than one political party, some ability to work together is the only way our form of government can function. Chronic incivility places the entire system in jeopardy, not only deepening our divides but making it far less likely that we will be capable of overcoming them. In the short-term, expressions of unfocused outrage and the incivility they tend to involve can be enjoyable and may even seem to have some positive effects. Over the long-term, they erode the system.

I think it is important that those on the political left who oppose President Trump continue to express themselves and keep engaging in effective goal-directed activism. I think they can do this while treating others civilly and without lowering themselves to Trump's level. I realize that many of them do not seem to want to do so, and that is understandable. Still, I think we will all pay a price if we abandon civil discourse and continue to demonize our political opponents.