Honor Alternative Perspective to Make Democracy Work:
Civility Alone is Not Enough
Civility Alone is Not Enough
In a democracy, sometimes the other side wins and rather than take up the sword against them we work to check and balance their power within existing institutional arrangements. We disagree with them, that is a given, but that does not mean we cannot find common ground on this or that question to solve problems for families and communities.
To do this, we need to learn the skills of democratic citizenship: listening, deliberating, learning from experience, compromise, tolerance of disagreement and even discord at times. We need to see those who disagree as perpetually potential allies. When we, instead, paint them as ‘Hitler’ level threats to all that is good in the world we undermine our founder’s vision of a free and prosperous democratic republic.
James Hodgkinson attacked Republicans, because they were Republicans. Conservative media outlets (and at least one member of Congress from Ohio) blamed hateful Liberal rhetoric demonizing Trump and the Far Right. James Adkisson attacked Liberals and told us that he was acting in response to calls from “conservative” talk show hosts like those piling on Hodgkinson for his political terrorism but those same media outlets and pundits “neither acknowledged responsibility nor altered their rhetoric.”
The previous paragraph, paraphrased until the final line, is how my new favorite political analyst begins her most recent blog about the ways we think and talk about violence in tribal terms. If our team member is violent—that individual must be mentally ill (and unrelated to our team activities), but if their team member is violent than that violence can only be understood as an outgrowth of the language and activities of that horrible team. [You can, and should, read her blogs here.]
As Patricia Robert Miller notes, their violence ‘is typical of them,’ it defines them, it reinforces our pre-existing image of them as enemy, while our violence is an aberration only connected to us in the distorted thinking of opponents or a biased media. She then shares a great illustration she uses in class; great because it is so clearly apolitical and yet allows us to see the political dysfunction at work.
“That’s how ingroup/outgroup thinking works. The example I always use with my classes is what happens if you get cut off by a car with bumper stickers on a particularly nasty highway in Austin (you can’t drive it without getting cut off by someone). If the bumper stickers show ingroup membership, you might think to yourself that the driver didn’t see you, or was in a rush, or is new to driving. If the bumper stickers show outgroup membership, you’ll think, “Typical.” Bad behavior is proof of the essentially bad nature of the outgroup, and bad behavior on the part of ingroup membership is not. That’s how factionalized media works.
So, it’s the same thing with ingroup/outgroup violence and factionalized media (and not all media is factionalized). For highly factionalized right-wing media, Hodgkinson’s actions were caused by and the responsibility of “liberal” rhetoric, but Adkisson’s were not the responsibility of “conservative” rhetoric. For highly factionalized lefty media, it was reversed.
That factionalizing of responsibility is an unhappy characteristic of our public discourse; it’s part of our culture of demagoguery in which the same actions are praised or condemned not on the basis of the actions, but on whether it’s the ingroup or outgroup that does it. If a white male conservative Christian commits an act of terrorism, the conservative media won’t call it terrorism, never mentions his religion or politics, and generally talks about mental illness; if a someone even nominally Muslim does the same act, they call it terrorism and blame Islam. In some media enclaves, the narrative is flipped, and only conservatives are acting on political beliefs. In all factional media outlets, they will condemn the other for “politicizing” the incident.”
The ‘factionalizing of responsibility.’ An outgrowth of echo chambers or interpretive enclaves, where cable news and the internet (fueled by public and private sector elites exploiting both) have both democratized access to information and political communication even as it has also made it easier to avoid hearing counter arguments and live as if the opinions of me, my party, sect, and era are ‘just common sense’ and beyond dispute.
Then my new English professor friend and political mentor turns to a topic close to my heart: civility.
“While I agree that violent rhetoric makes violence more likely, the cause and effect is complicated, and the current calls for a more civil tone in our public discourse is precisely the wrong solution…. It isn’t because of tone. It isn’t because of how people are arguing; it’s because of what people are arguing. To make our world less violent, we need to make different kinds of arguments, not make those arguments in different ways.”
Miller argues here that calls for civility miss the point. She might even say make the situation worse, because today (is it new or amplified or only feels new because this is our time on the stage?) our political communication is tribal: we think & talk in ways that put loyalty to our group and opposition to our enemies first and problem solving (democratic decision making) second.
To focus on a problem with the tone of our conversation (as civility arguments often do) suggests all we need is to add ‘the right honorable gentleman from Worcestershire’ as a preface to conclude that he ‘is full of shit’ and all we be right with the world. While being more polite might help, might increase listening, it does not even recognize the deeper conflicts driving political communication today—messaging that is more like what Frankfurt calls ‘bullshitting’ than an effort to engage in challenging conversations. Miller explains…
“Our world is so factionalized that I can’t even make this argument with a real-world example, so I’ll make it with a hypothetical one. Imagine that we are in a world in which some media that insist all of our problems are caused by squirrels. Let’s call them the Anti-Squirrel Propaganda Machine (ASPM).They persistently connect the threat of squirrels to end-times prophecies in religious texts, and both kinds of media relentlessly connect squirrels to every bad thing that happens. Any time a squirrel (or anything that kind of looks like a squirrel to some people, like chipmunks) does something harmful it’s reported in these media, any good action is met with silence. These media never report any time that an anti-squirrel person does anything bad. They declare that the squirrels are engaged in a war on every aspect of their group’s identity. They regularly talk about the squirrels’ war on THIS! and THAT! Trivial incidents (some of which never happened) are piled up so that consumers of that media have the vague impression of being relentlessly victimized by a mass conspiracy of squirrels.
Any anti-squirrel political figure is praised; every political or cultural figure who criticizes the attack on squirrels is characterized as pro-squirrel. After a while, even simply refusing to say that squirrels are the most evil thing in the world and that we must engage in the most extreme policies to cleanse ourselves of them is showing that you are really a pro-squirrel person. So, in these media, there is anti-squirrel (which means the group that endorses the most extreme policies) and pro-squirrel. This situation isn’t just ingroup versus outgroup, because the ingroup must be fanatically ingroup, so the ingroup rhetoric demands constant performance of fanatical commitment to ingroup policy agendas and political candidates.
If you firmly believe that squirrels are evil (and chipmunks are probably part of it too), but you doubt whether this policy being promoted by the ASPM is really the most effective policy, you will get demonized as someone trying to slow things down, not sufficiently loyal, and basically pro-squirrel. Even trying to question whether the most extreme measures are reasonable gets you marked as pro-squirrel. Trying to engage in policy deliberation makes you pro-squirrel.”
Good illustration. See also Distorting the Law, where the authors argue persuasively that the decades long, coordinated assault by the far right on anyone who is not a fanatical worshipper of an unfettered free market system (with the tort reform movement as the example that is analyzed in detail in this brilliant book) for another illustration. And, in the shameless self-promotion category, you might also see Sound-Bite Saboteurs.
Seeing it in the concrete helps us then see what was hidden-in-plain-sight: how this dynamic we now take for granted in some ways is like the rust that never sleeps, eating away at out body politic by making deliberation, even serious conversation, significantly more difficult than it is already. Returning to paraphrasing (replacing squirrel with policies) Miller…
“We cannot have a reasonable argument about what policy we should adopt in regard health care, or regulation, or tort reform or education or climate change because even asking for an argument about policy means that you are on that evil other team and must be opposed as a threat to all we hold dear. That is profoundly anti-democratic, unproductive (it makes solving complex problems even harder), and un-American.”
Instead of thriving on vigorous disagreements where we all sharpen our analysis and improve our problem solving…the foundation of innovation and the instrumental soul of democracy…this type of political communication encourages us to “feel justified in using violence” against those who disagree with us by arguing we should outlaw slavery or give women the right to vote and work and get an education and lead.
Miller’s point is that encouraging violence this way is not about tone. “James Henry Hammond, who managed to enact the ‘gag rule’ (that prohibited criticism of slavery in Congress) didn’t have a different “tone” from John Quincy Adams, who resisted slavery. They had different arguments.”
Here is where the lens of another field helps me rethink civility.
Miller points out that demagoguery is a particular kind of argument, one constructed to encourage and justify violence designed to silence others. It is an argument that frames the world as us versus them, good versus evil, erasing complexity and nuance, detail and history and context. And when this type of argument results in violence, as expected and intended, “it doesn’t end there because of the tone of dominant rhetoric. It ends there because of the logic of the argument. If they are at war with us, and trying to exterminate us, then we shouldn’t reason with them.”
If civility is more than about just being polite, there are good reasons for this. Being polite is not only insufficient, but thinking of that as a solution likely makes the problem worse by masking the wolf in sheep’s clothes. So, let’s focus on the type of argument being advanced and the relationship between that argument and our best available data, rather than on tone and manners and decorum alone.
“It isn’t a tone problem. It’s an argument problem. It doesn’t matter if the argument for exterminating the outgroup is done with compliments toward them (Frank L. Baum’s arguments for exterminating Native Americans), bad numbers and the stance of a scientist (Harry Laughlin’s arguments for racist immigration quotas), or religious bigotry masked as rational argument (Samuel Huntington’s appalling argument that Mexicans don’t get democracy).
In fact, the most effective calls for violence allow the caller plausible deniability—will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?
Lots of rhetors call for violence in a way that enables them to claim they weren’t literally calling for violence, and I think the question of whether they really mean to call for violence isn’t interesting. People who rise to power are often really good at compartmentalizing their own intentions, or saying things when they have no particular intention other than garnering attention, deflecting criticism, or saying something clever. Sociopaths are very skilled at perfectly authentically saying something they cannot remember having said the next day. Major public figures get a limited number of ‘that wasn’t my intention’ cards for the same kind of rhetoric—after that, it’s the consequences and not the intentions that matter.
What matters is that whether it’s individual or group violence, the people engaged in it feel justified, not because of tone, but because they have been living in a world in which every argument says that they are responsible for all our problems, that we are on the edge of extermination, that they are completely evil, and therefore any compromise with them is evil, that disagreement weakens a community, and that we would be a better and stronger group were we to purify ourselves of them.
It’s about the argument, not the tone.”
I really like the way Miller brings this back to both elite agency and to our own individual culpability here. Just like the table I stubbed our toe on did not ‘make me angry,’ they are not the cause of our anger and frustration—no matter how often public and private sector elites (nominally on my team) encourage me to see my pain through this lens. There is no war on Christmas, but there is lots of violence and harm and hurt we could be reducing together if we weren’t so distracted tilting against windmills like a war on the traditional family or war on coal or drugs or crime.