2008 08 06
Do I Resemble Your Wife?

Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the title’s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didn’t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be “Somewhat,” in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.

Alright, I’ll admit it. It’ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that I’ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And that’s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.

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Howls of outrage (8)

2007 04 12
Civility and political discourse, again

I alluded to this issue at the tail end of another post the other day, but it’s still rattling around in my head, so perhaps writing about it again will properly dislodge it: I occasionally get a bit ticked off when I see complaining about the lack of civility on blogs. Now, there are a lot of blogs that seems to me out of line – enough so that they discredit themselves with me and I just don’t bother to go back. And I can also see plenty of good reasons to try to keep political debate civil. People who are arguing in good faith are unlikely to be persuaded by a rude interlocutor. People are complex too: people with obnoxious political views often have other valuable and morally worthy qualities, and there are certain forms of incivility that write off people as a whole, inappropriately. Honest people have honest disagreements about political issues, and that’s compatible with mutual respect. And so on.

But, but, but. When I see journalists whining about the nasty, nasty bloggers, I often feel that they’re putting a whole lot of emphasis on form at the expense of substance. This is what I was getting at the other day when I pointed out that Krauthammer might not use bad words in his columns but the content is downright nasty. I suppose at this point I might try to co-opt the civility talk and point out that, for example, proposing to continue the occupation of a country against the wishes of the occupied is itself a bit rude, but it’s so many other worse things besides that that even seeing things put this way should jar us out of a too narrow focus on civility. Krauthammer regularly (and influentially) proposes courses of action that are criminal and murderous; bloggers curse about his columns. How about some perspective about the respective norms being violated here?

It’s worth recalling that although politics often looks and feels like a game to the people who are engaged in it and comment on it, at the end of the day it really isn’t. When we engage in political debate about health care in the U.S., we are literally trying to figure out whether people will die for preventable reasons. When we engage in political debate about the Iraq War, we are talking about the fates of millions of people. At some level everyone knows this, but a certain Broderesque fastidiousness about the norms of civility in political discourse often seems to go along with the tendency to think of it as a game which one plays in columns and television chat shows.

So the stakes are high, and people on opposite sides of many political debates have very good reasons to be upset with one another. But it’s important to add to this that many of the disputants in the op-ed wars are lazy, stupid and dishonest. They really are. David Brooks is just fucking stupid. Charles Krauthammer and I don’t have an honest disagreement about the Middle East. He’s a liar who peddles bad arguments for a living, in defense of policies which get innocent people killed. At a certain point, with a certain sort of interlocuter, you have to give up and admit that you think they’re arguing in bad faith for morally reprehensible ends. And I wonder sometimes if the Broderesque calls for civility from journalists and professional pundits is really a plea to stop treating them with the disrespect they so richly deserve. A large part of the point of civility is to make reasonable political discourse possible, but with pundits of this sort (and some high profile bloggers) there’s no hope for reasonable political discourse anyway, and the only thing left to do is expose them to as much public ridicule as possible.

I admit this is all a bit vague and not terribly well-thought through. A better post would have tried to say more about different kinds of civility and incivility, since I’m probably running together different forms that could be usefully distinguished. And since I start off admitting that certain forms of incivility bother me, I really ought to say a bit more about how I distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable form of incivility. Finally, I suspect some of what I’ve written may conflict with my admission above that people with obnoxious political views can have other morally admirable qualities. I’m not sure, so anyone who has an opinion about this is invited to make it known in the comments.

Howls of outrage (9)

2004 07 31

Posted by in: Civility

I have Paul Craddick’s view of the value of civility in political discourse . . . until I lose my temper.

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2004 03 13
Civility and blogging Norms

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.

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