Friday, October 02, 2009

Civility in Politics

I attended the Sutherland Institute's blogger briefing on civility this past Tuesday. Rob Miller and Dave Hansen formed the panel, and a small group of bloggers were present to ask questions. Most of those who attended have written about the event, including Connor, Frank, David, and Trenton (?) from the blog Victory in Progress.

My notes closely resemble theirs; things can tend to the uncivil, this has been going on for a long time in politics, and it's really up to the individual to decide to remain civil. There is some interesting discussion of the value of being nice/civil vs. being direct and honest despite the risk to decorum. My two cents in that discussion is that I think it's possible to be honest and civil at the same time. But even then, you cannot control what others may take offense.

However, there is one point that has been bouncing around my head since the briefing. It's an idea that first came to mind when I read CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters two years ago. A particular chapter so resonated with me that I wanted to save the idea; so I blogged about it. More accurately, I typed a paragraph from the book which I felt summed up the thesis of the chapter quite well. I reproduce it here:
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.
How this short paragraph sums up what often passes for dialogue - both in mass media as well as in the blogosphere! It may not be the best way, but I don't mind so much a fervent, even angry exchange of ideas - so long as ideas are exchanged. However, what seems to happen more often than not is what CS Lewis describes as flippancy. People have been "trained to talk as if (fill in the blank) is funny." There's no actual joke being told, it's just assumed to have already been made. The more a person uses this tactic, the more immune they become to anything resembling a dialogue, the more every other opposing viewpoint appears ridiculous to them.

For instance, when then Vice President Al Gore was running for president, a joke arose that to this day continues to dog him. In an interview with CNN before he had even secured the Democratic Party's nomination VP Gore was asked,
Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?
Al Gore's answer, taken as a whole, was pretty generic. A sort of, 'look at my record, I've pushed for important things before, and I'll do the same as president' type of answer that went on for a couple of paragraphs. But there was one short phrase in his answer that demonstrates the power of flippancy,
I took the initiative in creating the Internet.
We all know how that phrase turned out. A politician describing his view that he had been at the forefront of legislation which allowed the internet to completely change the world we live in somehow got twisted into a decade-long (and counting) running joke. To many, the "Al Gore thinks he invented the internet" is a knee jerk response to anything the former VP says - even if that has nothing to do with current events. It's a slam inserted into any discussion of what Gore is doing or saying. Those that do so have safely armored themselves against actual dialogue.

This is one example of many. The characterization of the TEA parties and Town Hall goers as mobs is another. It is generally how political viewpoints are dismissed, and how political campaigns are waged. Making your opponent an object of ridicule is far easier, and unfortunately more successful, than debating ideas. In my opinion, this is what truly infects our political culture, and what leads to incivility. It is an easy game to get caught up in, and it is up to each individual to see past the flippancy to the real dialogue begging to be held.


Jason The said...

Big difference here. Al Gore for all his faults was telling the truth when he said that. The TEA party mobs have no idea what they are talking about. At a certain point, civility has to be trumped by truth.

Also, your argument seems to decry the incivility of those who laughingly ignore the "message" (whatever it might be that week) of the TEA partiers, without recognizing that they have effectively injected far more incivility into the narrative than anyone mocking their "movement" could do.

Charles D said...

It's certainly ridiculous that the media grab some inadvertent verbal miscue from a politician and twist and repeat it in an attempt to ridicule the person rather than provide a rational critique of that politician's views or record.

What worries me is the degree of hostility we are currently seeing against Obama that appears to be based completely on lies repeated by the right-wing media. There are any number of reasons to disagree with Obama's policy positions and certainly with his apparent inability or unwillingness to achieve any of his stated goals. But the ideas that he is a Nazi/Socialist/Moslem/Non-American/Messiah are so patently ridiculous and the people parroting them are so overtly hostile that we are begging some nut case to come out of the woodwork and take a shot at the President. This has to stop.

This is not incivility, this is inciting to riot. This isn't a policy critique, it is thinly disguised racism. People on the right who value this Republic and care about our Constitution need to step up and tell the media to stop this nonsense immediately. The rabble being motivated by Fox News and talk radio need to be calmed down before one of their number does something we will all be sorry about.

Cameron said...


It's a meme I've heard countless times. This video sums up my feelings on the "crazy, dangerous mob" meme. Where was all the hand wringing when your side was burning soldiers in effigy?

Cameron said...


You have epically missed the point. As usual.

Charles D said...

Can you provide a single instance over the last 30 years where anyone on the left burned a soldier in effigy? I doubt it very seriously.

I'm not saying that the tea-party-birthers are themselves dangerous (although showing up to a meeting where the President is speaking armed with an assault weapon is dangerous enough). I'm saying that as with the anti-choice movement, if you dehumanize someone over and over, paint them as a murderer or as someone out to destroy the nation, some nut case is going to try to make a name for himself by killing that alleged murderer or nation destroyer. It's like yelling fire in a crowded theater, you may mean merely to disrupt the performance, but someone could be hurt or killed in the process.

Cameron said...

Charles, did you watch the video? Here's another. One which I've pointed out to you before.

Or how about how AIG execs were dehumanized and had people bussed in to stand and chant outside their homes while they received death threats in the mail.

But that's not the point of this post! It's one sentence out of many paragraphs. Sheesh people, stop trying to defend what you've done and instead reflect on what it is that I've written. Then try and add something useful to the discussion.

Charles D said...

What you seem to be saying is that we should have more civility in politics - agreed. What you aren't recognizing is that there is a significant difference between the "tea-party" protests and protests by left-wingers against the war or against Bush - the left wingers were protesting things that were actually happening, but the teabaggers were protesting against lies they were fed by the media.

Cameron said...

The post is not about having more civility in politics. It's highlighting a certain type of incivility (flippancy) that I think infests current political discourse. Yours and Jason's inability and refusal to understand the underlying issues behind the TEA parties is just one glaring example. The Al Gore story is another. Flippancy is so prevalent that we don't recognize when we're doing it. That goes for every political persuasion.

Charles D said...

Flippancy implies that one makes a snide shallow comment about something that is serious. When something occurs that is patently ridiculous, it isn't necessary to be flippant about it, merely describing it can evoke the humor in it.

The tea party folks have every reason to be upset about the actions of the government and of the current administration, but every one of the reasons they gave for their protest was rooted not in reality but in right-wing propaganda. Instead of being concerned about the Obama administration's failure to enact health insurance reform, they were calling him a socialist or a nazi. You had people on Medicare railing about how government should stay out of the health insurance business. One doesn't have to be uncivil to note that these are spurious rationales.

Randy said...

Isn't "flippancy" as you described it, just a form of prejudice? (maybe not "just").

Some folks discredit the TEA parties because of the "angry mob" mentality. But have they tried to understand what's going on? The TEA parties are about individual people, upset with the current and proposed status. Some are ridiculous of course. But they don't necessarily reflect the thoughts of the person standing beside them.

Cameron said...


That's a good observation. I wonder which comes first, the flippancy or the prejudice? Is flippancy prejudice in action, or does it lead to prejudice? I don't really have an answer.

Cameron said...


When I recognized what was being done to Al Gore I went and found the transcript to the actual interview where he talked about the internet. As I described in the post, the entire 'I created the internet' meme is used to convince people to dismiss anything else the man says. I disagree vehemently with much of Gore's politics, yet I disagree even more with how this method of political gaming was used against him.

At the height of the anti-war protests in the mid 2000's I saw the types of things going on in those marches. The two links I've shared in the comments are good examples. I've written about the protest marches a number of times on this blog. It's incredibly easy to make dismissive jokes about people that burn soldiers in effigy and desecrate the American flag. But I knew people who attended marches, and I knew their true motivations. They honestly disagreed, and I respected them for that.

It is this type of understanding and acknowledgment that flippancy undermines. And this is what you are lacking in your analysis of those attending the TEA parties and town halls. Calling them 'teabaggers' and 'mobs' are giant red flags that you're not using your brain, and instead are being led around by those who oppose them. Your defense of your dismissiveness shows that you haven't actually tried to understand why people are showing up at these events.

Charles D said...

Cameron, I could call them whatever I want but my issue is that the town hall protestors articulated non-issues almost exclusively. They made attacks on Obama personally or they attacked policies he is not proposing, or they claimed to be opposed to a form of health insurance many of them are benefiting from.

I will concede that there are real reasons to be angry at our government, and real reasons to be angry at Obama. One should have little problem finding fault with our government's actions over the last year or so nor with the policies of the current administration. Why then were these people talking about socialism and death panels and illegal aliens and abortions and killing Grandma? None of those things is in any form of the many bills before Congress.

That disconnect is why so many mainstream people found humor in the town hall protests. Let's remember that "teabagger" is a term invented by the right-wing organizers of these protests. These protests were never designed to promote a conservative policy position in the health care debate, they were just there to drown out any real debate and deny their fellow citizens the ability to interact with their congressmen. A bit of flippancy in reaction to them is hardly uncivil by comparison.

Cameron said...

Okay, I guess a history lesson is in order.

People elected a Republican president who, after racking up lots of debt on stupid spending, ended his two terms by giving hundreds of billions of dollars to banks. Many folks didn't care for that. A lot.

Then a new president takes office and immediately passes a ginormous 'stimulus' bill full of pork and other non-stimulating items, and did so under dubious circumstances.

Then said president unveils a budget proposal which quadruples the already too high budget deficit. In other words, we take a deficit which everyone thinks is too high, and then we make it four times bigger. A lot of people don't like that. A lot.

Then, each time a new long term budget outlook is released the yearly deficits get bigger and bigger because of all the new programs being enacted by said president and the president's party-controlled Congress.

People aren't stupid. They see the writing on the wall and know that sooner or later those deficits will have to be paid for. Government pays for things through taxes. Hence, a Taxed Enough Already (TEA) party movement. How is this movement responded to? Either by completely ignoring it, or by dismissing it with the term teabagger. And rationalize all you want, Charles, but you and I both know your use of the word is far different than the tea-party goers' use of it.

Then, on top of all the previous spending, the president and his party-controlled Congress want to spend $1.6 Trillion on a health care bill (not to mention a yet to be debated cap and trade bill). And they want to push it through as quickly as possible so that no one has time to debate its merits. They know an August recess is coming and that would just be too much time for constituents to talk their reps out of voting for the bill. So they push and push and push to get it done before anyone even knows what's in it - including the reps. Unfortunately, they're unsuccessful, and everyone goes home for the recess.

Because of all this, some really pissed off people show up at the town halls during August. They're upset that their Congress seems perfectly willing to vote on things that cost $1.6 Trillion without even having read it. They're angry that no one listens to them. How does Congressional leadership respond? They call their constituents Nazi's. Yep. Way to bring civility to the discussion fellas. Then they act surprised when that angers people even more.

So no, the message of the town hall goers was not unintelligible. It was clear from the get-go.

Charles D said...

And they should be angry about that, but the problem is not spending per se, it is about what the government is doing with our money.

Unfortunately we are in an economic crisis caused, at the deepest level, by our government's unwillingness to regulate the financial industry. Millions of Americans are now suffering because the banks and investment houses ran a giant multi-trillion dollar Ponzi scheme and it fell apart. The government knew what was going on and intentionally did nothing. But now we are faced with rising unemployment, rising bankruptcies, rising numbers of home foreclosures, and no incentive for the private sector to make the risky investments necessary to regain what we've lost.

Government is now the only entity that can rescue the economy, so lambasting spending, especially when the government proposes spending money on something that would actually hep ease the suffering of the people, is counterproductive at best.

Attacking the idea of a government health insurance option is exactly what the big banks and insurance companies want. It rewards the perpetrators of the health crisis just like Bush/Obama's giveaways to the banks. Attacking a President as a socialist or Nazi when he is clearly in the pocket of the same corporate interests as his predecessor weakens his ability to pass legislation that could help their plight. They were, essentially, jumping up and down yelling to prevent the government from making their lives more secure.

Cameron said...

Well Charles, that almost sounds like an acknowledgment that flippancy was indeed used to dismiss the very real concerns of TEA party and town hall goers. I think we may have made some progress here.