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June 30, 2004

Comments

Wonderfully found and said, Hilzoy. (It has been years since I read Mere Christianity; perhaps it's time to read it again.) And good thought in promoting it, Moe.

Good for C.S. Lewis. Good for Hilzoy. Good for you, Moe.

While I don't find Lewis's various apologia for Christianity compelling from a religious standpoint, I've always had a lot of respect for him as a writer and a thinker. This is the sort of thing that gives him a well-deserved appeal outside of Christian literature.

I've been thinking lately that we all need to take a few steps back and take a good, hard look at ourselves and the folks on the other side of the aisle. Political rhetoric, which has rarely been a thing of comity and has taken a turn for the worse over the last few years, has been particularly vile recently.

Witness a recent thread over at Tac's site. Someone brings up Moore. Someone else brings up Coulter. Someone else talks about Bush hatred, and another person points out the way Clinton was treated in the 90s. I knew it had reached new heights of absurdity when someone actually reached back into the 1800s for examples of who "started it".

It doesn't matter who "started it"--if, indeed, anyone did at all. Trying to pin that item of blame is an exercise in demonstrating precisely the kind of partisan bickering we're talking about.

I can't help but think that the only way we're going to succeed in raising the level of discourse in this country is through unilateral disarmament. Moore's obnoxious: granted. Coulter's a shrike: granted. But like the Israelis and Palestinians, if we refuse to wage peace simply because there are still loons on the other side who won't play nice, we'll never get anywhere.

Think SNL and Steve Martin...

"That being said, I don't think that the answer is not to speculate about people's motives or character. I think I should try to be charitable, to consider seriously the possibility that I am wrong, and to express myself in a way that leaves that possibility open. But I also think that the character of our leaders in particular is extremely important, and that it would not serve us well to stop thinking about this. Moreover, I think that we have enough information to draw some conclusions about their character, and that we can also speculate where we lack conclusive evidence, as long as we are clear that that is what we are doing. But we should always try to remember that politicians are people like everyone else, as liable to confusion and weakness as the rest of us, and that it is no more permissible to say hateful things about them for the hell of it, than it would be to do this to someone we actually know.''

Naaaaah!

Think SNL and Steve Martin...

"That being said, I don't think that the answer is not to speculate about people's motives or character. I think I should try to be charitable, to consider seriously the possibility that I am wrong, and to express myself in a way that leaves that possibility open. But I also think that the character of our leaders in particular is extremely important, and that it would not serve us well to stop thinking about this. Moreover, I think that we have enough information to draw some conclusions about their character, and that we can also speculate where we lack conclusive evidence, as long as we are clear that that is what we are doing. But we should always try to remember that politicians are people like everyone else, as liable to confusion and weakness as the rest of us, and that it is no more permissible to say hateful things about them for the hell of it, than it would be to do this to someone we actually know.''

Naaaaah!

I think the incivility is largely a symptom of the two big parties trying to hold together their coalitions.

Each party has to try to keep five or six basically incompatible groups in the tent, showing up on election day. It's hard for Karl Rove to find a way to emphasize what they all agree on, because (say) the libertarian wing of the Republican party and the Religious Right really don't have all that much in common. But it's fairly easy to find things to dislike about Kerry, which will appeal to each of them in turn. The same thing happens from the Democratic side--urban blacks and environmentalists, say, don't really have all that much in common, beyond being able to find reasons to hate Bush.

Just my two cents....

--John

I think the incivility is largely a symptom of the two big parties trying to hold together their coalitions.

Each party has to try to keep five or six basically incompatible groups in the tent, showing up on election day. It's hard for Karl Rove to find a way to emphasize what they all agree on, because (say) the libertarian wing of the Republican party and the Religious Right really don't have all that much in common. But it's fairly easy to find things to dislike about Kerry, which will appeal to each of them in turn. The same thing happens from the Democratic side--urban blacks and environmentalists, say, don't really have all that much in common, beyond being able to find reasons to hate Bush.

Just my two cents....

--John

OOC, are people having access problems this morning? Lotsa double postings going on... :)

Moe

I find that ObWi is generally pretty slow in responding at /any/ given time. I've just learned by now to be patient after hitting the "post" button, and to not try to repost or refresh after it's been sitting there a minute.

I suspect that it's a TypePad problem, then: too many users and not enough processing power. 'Course, a full MT conversion would apparently be pretty expensive, and for fifteen bucks a month the level of service we're getting is pretty good. :)

You know, I've been wondering why you guys haven't switched to MT by now, and moved to your own server--ObWi easily gets enough traffic to justify it. Far more than my little blog.

If it's a question of hosting, I can make a few recommendations.

I was thinking about this on the subway on the way to work, about why I have a chip on my shoulder about columns like Brooks' and Kristof's. It's not that I think lack of civility is okay. It's that they seem to think that all harsh or impolite statements--true or untrue, said in a book by a humorist or an impeachment trial on the Senate floor--are equally bad.

So. Here are the guidelines I try to follow, with widely varying degrees of success:
1) Be accurate. “The truth is bad enough,” as my journalism professor in college used to tell us over and over. Do not exaggerate. Do not mislead. Do not mischaracterize your opponents’ arguments. Do not act like something is proven and certain when you’re actually not sure of it. Do not fool yourself, either.
2) Be specific. Two parts to this one:
a) Be specific about whom you’re criticizing. The following statements range from indefensible to perfectly accurate:
Republicans don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
Republican politicians don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
Republicans in Congress don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
James Inhofe and Trent Lott don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
b) Be specific about what they did wrong. “Show, don’t tell” as the writing cliché goes. That 18 item list in the previous thread of my Issues with the Bush administration, whatever you think of it, is better than “Bush is the nastiest, tricksiest President ever and I hates him!” And I only feel free to write things like “this administration has condoned torture” because I’ve previously written God knows how many posts with specific examples and facts that show how I came to that conclusion.
3) Criticize actions, not motivations. There are exceptions to this. Sometimes there is concrete evidence of someone’s motivations (e.g. the recent Enron tapes making fun of “Grandma Millie”), and sometimes their motivations are highly relevant to evaluating their actions (e.g. it matters, a lot, what the D.O.J.’s motivations were in writing the torture memo) But it’s a good general rule. An even stronger way of putting it would be: don’t be sure you know people’s motivations, and don’t assume the worst about them.
4) The public figure rule. In libel suits there’s a higher threshold for what constitutes libel when a public figure is involved. Contrary to hilzoy’s excellent comment, I feel the same way about political debates. It’s one thing to insult the President or the House Minority leader; it’s another thing to insult the person you’re arguing with. It’s stupid and wrong to call the Secretary a Defense a baby killer. It’s despicable and indecent and 100 times worse to call an Iraqi veteran on the street a baby killer. I’m having trouble expressing this one in imperative form. The closest I can come is: calibrate your anger to the actual power this person has to do harm, and the actual harm they have done or threaten to do. An ANSWER protestor is bad, but he’s not as bad as the dictator he defends—the protestor has not actually killed anyone. The same comment that should invite outrage when the Senate majority leader says it, might be best ignored if some random blog commenter says it.
5) Be at least somewhat original. Some attacks are so obvious, and have been repeated so many times by now, that they’ve lost all value if they ever had any.
6) The old cliché: two wrongs don’t make a right.

Some of these obviously go together. One of the problems with non-specific attacks and attacks on people’s motivations is that they’re very likely to be inaccurate.

And all that said—there are worse things going on right now than a lack of civility.

I was thinking about this on the subway on the way to work, about why I have a chip on my shoulder about columns like Brooks' and Kristof's. It's not that I think lack of civility is okay. It's that they seem to think that all harsh or impolite statements--true or untrue, said in a book by a humorist or an impeachment trial on the Senate floor--are equally bad.

So. Here are the guidelines I try to follow, with widely varying degrees of success:
1) Be accurate. “The truth is bad enough,” as my journalism professor in college used to tell us over and over. Do not exaggerate. Do not mislead. Do not mischaracterize your opponents’ arguments. Do not act like something is proven and certain when you’re actually not sure of it. Do not fool yourself, either.
2) Be specific. Two parts to this one:
a) Be specific about whom you’re criticizing. The following statements range from indefensible to perfectly accurate:
Republicans don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
Republican politicians don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
Republicans in Congress don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
James Inhofe and Trent Lott don’t take Abu Ghraib seriously.
b) Be specific about what they did wrong. “Show, don’t tell” as the writing cliché goes. That 18 item list in the previous thread of my Issues with the Bush administration, whatever you think of it, is better than “Bush is the nastiest, tricksiest President ever and I hates him!” And I only feel free to write things like “this administration has condoned torture” because I’ve previously written God knows how many posts with specific examples and facts that show how I came to that conclusion.
3) Criticize actions, not motivations. There are exceptions to this. Sometimes there is concrete evidence of someone’s motivations (e.g. the recent Enron tapes making fun of “Grandma Millie”), and sometimes their motivations are highly relevant to evaluating their actions (e.g. it matters, a lot, what the D.O.J.’s motivations were in writing the torture memo) But it’s a good general rule. An even stronger way of putting it would be: don’t be sure you know people’s motivations, and don’t assume the worst about them.
4) The public figure rule. In libel suits there’s a higher threshold for what constitutes libel when a public figure is involved. Contrary to hilzoy’s excellent comment, I feel the same way about political debates. It’s one thing to insult the President or the House Minority leader; it’s another thing to insult the person you’re arguing with. It’s stupid and wrong to call the Secretary a Defense a baby killer. It’s despicable and indecent and 100 times worse to call an Iraqi veteran on the street a baby killer. I’m having trouble expressing this one in imperative form. The closest I can come is: calibrate your anger to the actual power this person has to do harm, and the actual harm they have done or threaten to do. An ANSWER protestor is bad, but he’s not as bad as the dictator he defends—the protestor has not actually killed anyone. The same comment that should invite outrage when the Senate majority leader says it, might be best ignored if some random blog commenter says it.
5) Be at least somewhat original. Some attacks are so obvious, and have been repeated so many times by now, that they’ve lost all value if they ever had any.
6) The old cliché: two wrongs don’t make a right.

Some of these obviously go together. One of the problems with non-specific attacks and attacks on people’s motivations is that they’re very likely to be inaccurate.

And all that said—there are worse things going on right now than a lack of civility.

d'oh. Sorry about the double post. (I don't know how that happened, I even previewed.)

Those are good rules, though, Katherine.

Katherine, what a fantastic set of suggestions. And a great addition to commenting guidelines.

Katherine -- those are great rules. (I inadvertently violated #1 a while back, and Moe was absolutely right to call me on it.) I agree with you about the public figure rule. What I was thinking of when I wrote what I did was the tendency of some people, on all sides of the issues, to think about public figures in ways that they would never think about actual human beings. When I was in college, for instance, people who were generous and tolerant in normal life would simply assume that members of the university administration had evil, sordid motives, without a shred of evidence. This was back when divestment was a big issue in colleges, and I recall people who were pro-divestment saying that the administrators who took the opposite view were pro-apartheid, that as members of the white power elite they obviously had an interest in oppressing the peoples of the third world, and so forth; and I thought: whatever their reasons might be, they are really unlikely to involve a fondness for apartheid or oppression. So why are these people saying these things? Behavior that they would have regarded as totally obnoxious in ordinary life somehow became a sign of idealistic fervor and righteousness when deployed against powerful people whom they did not know. I have always assumed that part of what's going on is a failure to bear in mind that people in power are, after all, human beings much like ourselves, to whom all the normal rules apply. That's why I wrote what I did.

But if we assume that George W. Bush is a human being like us, and should be understood in the same terms, then I completely agree with you that we should feel free to criticize things about him that we might let slide if he weren't our President -- both because the character of a President matters more than the character of most other people, and also because in accepting the Presidency he knowingly put himself in a position in which his character matters enormously.

I should also say that when I wrote the original post, I meant it not just as a claim about what kinds of incivility are, in my view, wrong, but also as an indication of the conditions which, once met, allow for very serious criticism that is not (according to me) uncivil. I have been, and remain, very hard on George W. Bush. I have not leapt to the conclusion that these criticisms are correct, I am not happy about them, and I would love to be wrong. But I think that if I really try to stick both to my rules and to Katherine's, and if in addition I keep an open mind and try to behave with courtesy, I can say what I think about the current administration without incivility.

When I was in college, for instance, people who were generous and tolerant in normal life would simply assume that members of the university administration had evil, sordid motives, without a shred of evidence.

It's the illusion of omnipotence issue.

You know how I said on the previous thread that "he said, she said" reporting--the sort that presents the Democrats' and Republicans' behavior as equivalent no matter what they're actually doing--rewards incivility?

Ahem.

Internet the Back Alley of Choice for Bare-Knuckle Political Brawls
Bush and Kerry use the Web to deliver harsh attacks. It's cheap, effective and bypasses the scrutiny of TV ads.

Last week, the Bush campaign e-mailed a 78-second video to millions of supporters that included images of Adolf Hitler amid a stream of Democrats inveighing against the president.

Ensuing protests over the video's use of images of the Nazi dictator led Bush aides to add a 20-second disclaimer saying the Hitler clips had first been used against him by liberal opponents*.

But the controversial video remained on the campaign website Wednesday; his aides defended it as a call to arms for Republican loyalists.

Likewise, Kerry has used Internet videos to attack Bush, even as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee claims to be taking the high road with positive television advertising.

One 50-second video, "Time's Up," says Bush broke promises on healthcare and uses a meter to count the days until the end of his term.

Another, the 57-second "Very First Bush Budget," uses computer animation to mock the president's spending plans as the failed exercise of a schoolboy who struggled with elementary mathematics.

Neither these videos nor others on the Kerry website quite fit the traditional format and tone of 30- and 60-second TV ads.

Meanwhile, the NY Times subjects Kerry's recent ads to rigorous factchecking:

A narrator says: "He's a husband and father. A pilot, a hunter, a hockey player. Tough prosecutor, advocate for kids....

ACCURACY: Most of the claims are straightforward. While Mr. Kerry does have two daughters and three stepsons, the decades-old photograph evokes a stage of fathering that is out of date. He has a pilot's license but never flew for anything other than fun. "Tough prosecutor" and "advocate for kids" are subjective evaluations....

If your claim to be "a husband and father. A pilot, a hunter, a hockey player" are going to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as your opponents' [misleading if not false] claims about your Senate voting record; if your opponents' video clips of Hitler are treated as equivalent to your computer animation ticking down the days to the end of his term--what possible incentive is there to take the high road?

*false/misleading

(the LA Times article is via Kevin Drum)

Tough prosecutor, advocate for kids....

I tend to view such terms as Homeric epithets like "red-bearded Menelaus" or "wine-dark sea". Not only do I tend not to scrutinize them, I tend not to see them.

what possible incentive is there to take the high road?

Perhaps because it's the right thing to do and that the reasons that one does the right thing includes both the effect it has on others as well as the effect it has on you.

Well, yeah, THOSE reasons. But politicians cast their eyes ever towards re-election. Taking the low road could alienate people, of course, but for the most part campaigns do it because it works.

Which is, of course, why we have to not vote for people who lie through their teeth, while also trying to make it the case that we recognize decent politicians when they come along. As citizens of a democracy, we get the leaders we deserve.

What a bunch of effing stupid comments!

They're all effing stupid!

And I know why! All you people are fascists! You hate freedom!

Just like George Bush and John Kerry do!

They're just like Hitler!

Just like Hitler was!

The only reason I'm saying this is because people have said I'm just like Hitler!

Don't be silly. Moon reformed Hitler. He's a good guy now.

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