06 March 2012
In search of nonpartisan political etiquette
With criticism hitting him where he lived -- advertisers were pulling out of his program -- Rush Limbaugh took the rare step over the weekend of admitting error. He allowed that he had been excessive in his condemnation of the college student whose call for access to contraceptives had led him to call her a "slut" and "prostitute." Advertisers continue to pull out, however, and the usual critics have not let up on Limbaugh. For a generation, they've been looking for the "Have you no sense of decency?" moment that might destroy him, and the current scandal looks like their best chance in a long time. While I have little sympathy for Limbaugh, the chase has left me wondering what would really be fair -- whether agreement is possible on a kind of discourse etiquette that would allow people of all political and ideological persuasions to express moral indignation in no uncertain terms without sinking to the level of insult. It's a trickier task than it should be, simply because people on all sides today have a bad habit of equating criticism with hatred. It seems more difficult than ever to tell someone that he's wrong on a political or moral question without the person thinking you wish him misery, ruin and possibly eternal damnation. Are the stakes really that high all the time? They shouldn't be. We ought to be able to criticize each other without seeming to threaten each other. That's really a matter of character rather than etiquette -- everybody needs thicker skin these days -- but moderating our language might help character assert itself. For example, Limbaugh should be within his rights to assert, however stupidly, that the student is immoral for wanting contraception, if that's what he means, but he clearly would have been better off not stooping to language worthy of lumpen Islamists. Meanwhile, my advice to the "Left" is nothing new: stop calling people Nazis, for starters, unless they explicitly endorse the views of Adolf Hitler. That goes for some on the "Right" as well. Some on the left might also be advised to give up calling people "devils." Neither restriction would stop anyone from saying that Republicans would take the country in a profoundly wrong or even immoral direction, but they would discourage cheap shots that might rightly anger the targets. Ideally, politics should be free of ad hominem attacks, but too many people today take "you're wrong" as ad hominem. Part of the problem is that so much of our political discourse is speculative; we campaign against each other on the possibly-unfalsifiable basis of the damage each thinks the other will do to the country or the culture. Assumptions of bad intentions tend to follow from such speculation. Bipolarchy probably exacerbates this tendency. In a multiparty campaign we might compare three, four or more platforms thinking only of which is best, but when we have only two "real" choices we're tempted to consider which is worst. Once we assume that certain choices are "wrong," ad hominem attacks are almost inevitable. I don't mean to say that there could never be a "wrong" choice in a multiparty election -- you could have real Nazis on the ballot, -- but more choices would most likely make the choice itself seem less stark or fateful, while each partisan would likely be less hostile toward any of his rivals than today's partisan is toward his one big rival. Our lack of apparent options today may explain the hostility of our rhetoric, but such a recognition alone can't change the situation. More choices might mean less hatred in our discourse, but there might not be more real choices until we hate less. People may not see the choices that already exist until they forswear the fear and hatred that sustain Bipolarchy.