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Needed: An honorable calculus of civility and incivility

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, 1956, Montgomery, Alabama. Wikipedia photo.

Here are some sample problems to solve with a calculus of civility and incivility. What do you think?:

1. If a friend of a friend on Facebook trolls liberals by repeating a false and racist right-wing talking point, should every liberal within hearing distance let him have it with both barrels?

2. If a liberal walks into an auto parts store in a rural red county, and a man behind the counter is in the middle of loudly repeating a racist lie about Barack Obama, should the liberal say, loud enough for the man behind the counter to hear, “Watch it! Democrat in the room!” Then should the liberal engage the man, as briefly as possible, to expose for all within earshot what a dumbass little POS bigot the man behind the counter is?

3. Should a liberal discuss politics with Republican neighbors, or at holiday dinner tables with right-wing relatives?

These kinds of questions are frequently on our minds, and often we find ourselves in situations in which we have only a moment to speak up or not to speak up, and, if we speak, to decide what to say. But rarely is the question discussed in a thoughtful — I’ll even say rigorous — way. Today the Atlantic’s web site has a much-needed article on this subject by Adam Serwer, “Civility Is Overrated: The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol — it’s the false promise of civility.”

I cannot claim that my own thinking has been rigorous, but I’ve given this some thought, and I’ve parted company with my fellow liberals (such as Joe Biden?) who would argue that we should “reach out” to these people and try to preserve or restore civility. My view is that the Republican Party under the influence of Trump has become so openly and proudly racist, so delusional, and so damned mean that to remain silent in the name of civility would be a moral failing and a political mistake. I do not propose that we bait right-wing racists or troll them. I propose only that we respond when they lash out, even at the expense of civility.

I think I will not attempt to summarize Serwar’s case here; I’d encourage everyone to read this piece. But I would like to mention one of the political angles that Serwar worries about, which is that if the Democratic Party ends up losing to Republicans in 2020, then the Democratic Party might then try to “reach out” to white rural conservatives for the sake of political power and civility at whatever cost, while turning its back on principles of justice and equality, and on constituents that rural white conservatives don’t like. If that ever happened, I would be among the first to leave the Democratic Party. I do not want to be in the same party as rural, white, racist evangelicals. They could not possibly fit into the Democratic coalition unless others were pushed out. That is part of Serwer’s point in the Atlantic article.

My views, I hope, are always subject to rethinking and revision. But here is how I would reply to the three questions above.

1. Yes. Let the Facebook troll have it with both barrels and then some, even if it makes a scene.

2. Yes. Let the man behind the counter have it with both barrels and then some, even if it makes a scene.

3. Not talking politics in mixed company is a perfectly acceptable solution. With my neighbors, what works is to concern ourselves with local matters about which party politics and the polarized state of the nation have nothing to say. We talk about our common concerns, such as how our unpaved road is holding up in winter weather, or who needs firewood. None of my Republican neighbors has ever baited me. However, right-wing baiting and trolling clearly happens at holiday dinner tables all over the country. The calculus to apply, I’m thinking, probably will vary from family to family. Responding with both barrels is an option, but I would not argue that it’s obligatory in all situations. In other words, it’s a complex calculus, and we need to work on it, recognizing that the best answer at some Christmas dinner tables may not be the best answer in our state and national politics, a zone in which we must talk politics.

Update: Today at the Guardian, a columnist wonders whether civility was the wrong call: “The life lessons I learned over breakfast with a Trump supporter.”


  1. Karren Coplen wrote:

    Good points. The thing we don’t talk about is that if we refrain from answering those ignorant incendiary comments, they become commonplace and socially acceptable. Those people take our silence for agreement and the situation gets worse. We’ve come so far from civil, intelligent discourse already. It’s time to speak up in those situations-hopefully with thoughtfulness and respect for other people, but pointing out the errors.

    Sunday, December 8, 2019 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  2. Dan wrote:

    The Republicans I know still surprise me from time to time with how obtuse some of their remarks can be. While on a walk one day with a woman I work with, she said that, due to affirmative action and diversity, that a white Catholic woman is more likely to be arrested just for being a white Catholic than a black woman is for being black. I didn’t even engage because I couldn’t believe how empty-headed that remark was.

    My best friend who still manages to surprise me with his politics. One time, he said that he doesn’t understand how a woman accusing a man of rape can cause the man to lose his career in entertainment or sports. It took a round of berating him before he understood that sometimes the only evidence will come from the woman and not some CSI magic and how the man handles that accusation might clue you in on the veracity of the accusation itself.

    I tend to be someone who is unafraid of someone thinking poorly of me because I told them how much their politics stinks. Then again, the range of talking points from conservatives and their apologists doesn’t require much critical thinking to overcome, so I often feel like I’m talking to a child.

    Monday, December 9, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    Karren: I very much agree. Dan: Yes. Part of what baffles and infuriates me is the stupidity and factlessness of right-wing talking points.

    Monday, December 9, 2019 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

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