In case you missed it, Norm Geras is having it out with with this fellow. A tempest in a blogospheric teapot, to be sure, but it’ll do as a peg to hang a few thoughts on.
As far as the substance of the debate goes, I think for me that it’s a bit of this and a bit of that. But what I do feel fairly strongly about is that Norm Geras is not an “Apostate, Mad Dog who must be shot”. No, to put it mildly, I do not think that Norm deserves to be shot.
Here are a few considerations that ought to weigh on us when we’re deciding on what degree of civility to take up with a political adversary.
Let me dub the first the Brad DeLong Doctrine of Civility. This doctrine basically licenses the following retort to your adversaries: “If you don’t want to be called a liar, then don’t lie. Similarly, if you don’t want to be called an idiot, then don’t be one.” The justification for the Brad Delong Doctrine of Civility is fairly straightforward. Political discourse can be debased in many ways, but one of the most insidious is the distortion we introduce when we fail – repeatedly – to call a spade a spade on matters of the highest importance. A norm which prohibits strong language in response to outright lies and evasions isn’t a healthy one. It isn’t one we can afford any longer. So let’s call it like it is. DeLong’s series on the media is a superb example of someone telling it like it is, and doing everyone a world of good in the process.
[UPDATE: See below]
The second consideration is that we ought to try to maximize our opportunities for rational debate. That possibility recedes as our insults get rougher. But I think it’s obvious that Norm is capable of rational debate, even if *cough* he hasn’t yet responded to my invitation to debate the questions which really interest me.
Third, we ought to think in general about how strong emotions work in our political and moral judgments. As far as I can tell, the Buddhists think that we should try and shed ourselves of strong emotions. Myself, I’m with Aristotle on this one: Sometimes anger or indignation, in the right amount, at the right time, in the appropriate circumstances, is the right thing to feel. Anger or indignation are indispensable tools of moral reflection: they help us pick out things which are morally salient, and which might otherwise have escaped our notice. But they also distort and mislead. I’ve been blinded by indignation as often as I’ve been enlightened by it. When you’re tempted to use strong language with an adversary, you ought to think about whether the language you’re using is connected with the good or the bad kind of indignation. When you’re tempted to call – even in jest – for Norm Geras to be shot, chances are it’s the bad kind.
Finally, we ought to cut people slack depending on why we think they’ve arrived at the positions they have. Norm Geras may be mistaken about the war, but he didn’t support it for the same reasons Donald Rumsfeld did. He supported it for reasons that we ought to acknowledge too, even if we thought they were outweighed by other, stronger considerations. In fact, I’ve learned quite a bit from Norm’s blog. It irritates me sometimes, but it also gets me thinking about things in new ways. And that’s more than I can say for a lot of lefty blogs.
Let me finish by noting something Norm says:
Cue whoever it is that blogs at Lenin’s Tomb and calls himself, sometimes, Nikolai and, other times, Lenin. Supposedly responding to this post of mine, Nik – which is how I shall refer to him just to be friendly, since he has kindly allowed himself elsewhere to speak of me as ‘Norm’, and why would I ever rebuff an overture like that?
Whoops! As far as first names go, I notice that I have an inconsistent policy here at See Why? I usually use full names or last names, but occasionally I slip into the habit of using first names. I think I read somewhere once that bloggers do that all the time. Anyway, I almost always use Norm Geras’ first name. So: Pardon me, Mr. Geras, for being so forward. But your blog (ahem, “Normblog”) is simply stuffed to the brim with Norm-this and Norm-that. That may explain why complete strangers are using your first name. No offense intended.
UPDATE: And click here for a very funny response to some recent Republican whining about incivility.
UPDATE: Oh crap. Nikolai at Lenin’s Tomb thinks that I’m quoting Brad DeLong. I’m not, and I never meant to attribute the Brad DeLong Doctrine of Civility to anything he actually said. I named it after DeLong because I associate the view with him, and because I have a rather higher opinion of DeLong than Nikolai.