The Un-Civil States of America

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the death of civil society and what it means to sound right in the course of attempting to ackrite. One of the biggest bogeymen in American life is the concept of political correctness. In its most original (and I would say benign) form, political correctness demands that we use “language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society”. Such an approach is ripe for abuse and often shuts down debate on those same sensitive topics.

However, the backlash itself against political correctness has gone overboard and squashed reasoned and nuanced debate in this country. Instead, we have replaced debate with a level of coarseness that goes nowhere and leaves almost everyone feeling enervated. We use our best rhetorical cudgels to shout down any dissent on the very topics which require the most civil and thoughtful debate. We’re screaming past each other or not talking at all.

Isocrates on civility and threats to democracySuch is the state of our national disunity that partisans would say that the other side doesn’t deserve to be treated civilly. Or ‘that’ side started the attacks. The right is racist or sexist. The left is unpatriotic or communist. Both sides have their political correctness bogeymen. Ad hominem attacks and a few choice pieces of profanity make it simple to denounce an entire movement. Hell, it even feels cathartic.

Yet, the Greek Orator Isocrates once said:

Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.

There is a difference between speaking truth to power versus just being an asshole.

The need to move past obsessive political correctness does not obviate our responsibility to treat each other in a civil manner. But rhetoric matters. Nasty women? Deplorables? Neither. The Right’s backlash against leftward political correctness cannot provide cover for hatred or being mean-spirited. The Left’s backlash against rightward populism cannot provide cover for its own mean-spiritedness or incivility. All it will be is a dog whistle to people who already agree with you.

In an excellent article for the website Caracas Chronicles, Andrés Miguel Rondón talks about the opposition’s attempts to counter Hugo Chavez’s leftward populism:

But we failed. Because we lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy. The people on the other side, and crucially Independents, will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. Worst of all, you will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re just giving the Populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

Read the whole thing here.

Speaking truth to power does not mean we cease to call out hypocrisy or injustice. But the ad hominem attacks of the Left or Right do not interest me. The push and pull of American political life cannot yield any type of change if we lose civility; if we cannot see our friends on the other side of the aisle as individuals and not abstractions.

I guess what I’m saying is let’s not be assholes to each other.

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