17 November 2009

A Call for Civility

Kathleen Parker, an increasingly moderate sounding conservative columnist, feels a need this week to call for greater civility in political discussion. She's objective enough to see that most of the incivility is on one side of the divide, calling out Joe Wilson and Glenn Beck as alarmingly popular uncivil conservatives. She also notes that political incivility is nothing new in American history. But there does seem to be a difference between the often-slanderous negative campaigning of the Early Republic and the increasingly uninhibited hatred exhibited on the Internet. Parker herself blames the net, which ensures that nasty remarks never disappear. " Whereas in previous eras, an uncivil exchange might be confined to a room, a building or a public square, today’s media technology means that it is captured, amplified, replayed and distributed — perpetually," she writes.

I don't think media are mainly to blame for today's mood. The U.S. has gone through fluctuations of civility and its opposite from the beginning. In the early days it was perhaps understandable if the Founders felt that any disagreement portended the end of the Republic. If so, their anxiety explains their vehemence and their occasional plain old nastiness. The negative campaigning against Abraham Lincoln and other original Republicans at the brink of the Civil War is also understandable given people's fear that Republicans rocking the boat on slavery could tear the country apart. We live in another age of anxiety now, with our country's economic future in question, and we have two powerful factions, each of which accuses the other of ruining the country. In periods of relative civility Republicans and Democrats probably didn't think each other capable of bringing the country down. But in a period of American decline many Americans, like Don Corleone, are going to blame somebody even if it isn't rational.

Parker agrees with academics who are looking for ways to make civility more "exciting and interesting to young people." This sounds self-defeating, since the point of civility is not to excite the passions. She admits that it'll be a challenge, but since "civility, after all, is nothing but great acting," she wonders whether Hollywood stars could be recruited to promote it.

My hunch is that she's pursuing an admirable goal bass ackwards. The problem isn't that we have insufficient incentives for civility, but that we lack sufficient disincentives to discourage incivility. People are unashamed of what they say. You might blame the Internet for the shield of anonymity it provides, but there was an effort to shame Joe Wilson for his public heckling of the President, and that resulted in a backlash that turned "You Lie!" into a marketable slogan. It's hard to impose shame when no one feels accountable to their neighbors for what they say or how they behave. Shame in the old sense may be impossible in a society in which both major ideological factions are dedicated to different kinds of individualism. Meanwhile, a distrust of intellect that seems characteristic of many self-styled conservatives would make it hard to cultivate the sort of respect for superior argument that Parker's project demands. Conditions aren't likely to revert to greater civility unless a national recovery restores confidence and kills the fear that leads to some of today's incivility, or until one side somehow becomes so ashamed of its beliefs that it becomes more willing to listen to reason.

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