State of the Debate: The Case Against "Civility"

Many people believe that we are in the midst of what Stephen L. Carter calls a "civility crisis." Judith Rodin, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, calls it a "nuclear explosion of incivility." Newspapers and magazines publish articles with titles like "Civility in Politics: Going, Going, Gone" (New York Times) and "Whatever Happened to Good Manners?" (Washington Post). And even public opinion polls report that between half and three-quarters of the public believes that incivility is a serious social problem.

People think of a wide variety of virtues when they speak of "civility" and of a correspondingly broad assortment of sins when they refer to "incivility." Civility typically connotes courtesy, respectability, self-control, regard for others—a willingness to conduct oneself according to socially approved rules even when one would like to do otherwise. For many it means treating one's antagonists with a modicum of respect (even if one abhors them). Incivility connotes discourtesy, conduct that betrays little regard for the feelings of others, indifference to widely accepted norms of behavior. More concretely, it means saying "shit" or "fuck" loudly on a crowded bus, or calling one's antagonist in a debate a "nitwit" or a "fool," or raising a middle finger to signify your displeasure with a driver who pulls into the parking space you wanted.

Talk about civility would prompt only boredom if it meant simply that it is better to be polite than to be rude. But the contentions center on disagreements about just what constitutes rudeness, and the claims of some people that the country faces more than routine disagreements over standards of behavior. The debate becomes still more divisive when some claim that the country faces a civility "crisis" that is the culmination of a broad social deterioration traceable to the 1960s.

This assault on the legacy of the 1960s is nothing new. The right wing has been racking up victories in America's culture wars for 30 years. It won spectacularly in the debate over "political correctness." Anti-pc crusaders were able to portray efforts to make colleges and worksites more inviting places for blacks, openly gay people, and other long-excluded groups as either laughably silly or menacingly dictatorial. Some of the pc efforts were good and others were clearly mistaken, but conservatives managed to paint them all with the same broad brush. Then, having posed as champions of openness, the right turned around and won another string of victories by scaring curators of the nation's culture into canceling or toning down presentations that offended conservative sensibilities. Take, for example, the cancellation of an exhibition of erotic art by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Corcoran Gallery in 1989 and the bowdlerization of the Smithsonian Institution's fiftieth-anniversary review of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Appreciating what these culture-war victories did for conservatives, some liberals have attempted to coopt the rhetoric and sensibility of William J. Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lynne Cheney, Ben J. Wattenberg, and others who have prospered as what journalist Howard Fineman aptly describes as "virtuecrats." Bill Clinton has, for example, deployed the politics of civility against his Republican opponents in the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns and against Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress after 1994. Among the most prominent virtuecrats are many vaguely liberal commentators who inveigh against aggressive press investigations of President Clinton, attempted intimidations of federal judges, and GOP senators' obstruction of presidential nominees. They echo Clinton's calls for increased bipartisanship and point to the conservative Republican ascendancy in Congress as a malignant source of political "incivility."

Some liberals and related folk may be inclined to support a "civilitarianism" that is promoted by the likes of Stephen Carter, Deborah Tannen, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Packaged under liberal auspices, the civility movement seems to provide a way to outflank the right with a popular idea that has the added benefit of seeming apolitical. I argue against that inclination. The civility movement is deeply at odds with what an invigorated liberalism requires: intellectual clarity; an insistence upon grappling with the substance of controversies; and a willingness to fight loudly, openly, militantly, even rudely for policies and values that will increase freedom, equality, and happiness in America and around the world.


The Snare of Nostalgia

Stephen L. Carter's Civility is the best of the recent writings by those who are pained by the supposed "erosion" of civility in the United States. And because it is the best, its flaws are especially revealing.

Like other critics of contemporary incivility, Carter insists upon making broad and unsupported claims of cultural decline. He castigates "our growing incivility," laments how "we have become rude," and bemoans "the disintegration of social life." Anxieties about declines in civility, he acknowledges, have been a constant feature of American history. "Americans today," he writes, "are like Americans of every era. We think our nation's manners are falling apart." And he writes that "the common claim that there was a time in which America was more civil than today is rather shaky." Observing facets of American society that many civilitarians prefer to ignore, Carter notes (albeit with too little emphasis on the continuing presence of the past) that "we no longer countenance racial segregation or confine women unwillingly to the home." Hence, in response to the question, "Were the good days better or worse?" Carter says that "they were neither. They were both."

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While he avoids the sweeping nostalgia so common in the writings of many other virtuecrats, at base he embraces the same belief in some unidentified moment in the past when people and overall social arrangements were more civil than they are today. "The current level of incivility," he writes, "is morally intolerable [and] getting worse." While decrying golden ageism he nonetheless em braces it (as he must) in order to provide a basis, however dubious, for his claim that we are living in a civility crisis.

Such assertions of moral "collapse," "deterioration," or "crisis" should put us on guard. When we hear complaints about decline, we should expect the speaker to point out the good old days thus memorialized, to declare the facts that establish their superiority, and to justify the hierarchy of values that the speaker champions. Perhaps there are good reasons to believe that earlier moments in history were more conducive than today to social flourishing. But we should not accept without evidence a claim that civility is in decline, simply because writers seeking a news hook proclaim that to be so.

Another reason to be wary of claims of decline is that golden ageism is a characteristic trope of the rhetoric of reaction. Talk of moral decline is typically connected today with an attack on the phenomenon that right-wingers abhor with a particular vengeance: "the 1960s." For conservatives, the 1960s is less a decade than a montage of mean, spoiled, rebellious, long-haired Mark Rudds; authorities incapacitated by guilt and self-doubt; and an excess of tolerance releasing a surge in graffiti, abortions, divorce, unwed motherhood, street crime, and other indicators of social decay. William J. Bennett expresses this visceral aversion for the 1960s vividly when he writes, "What we are seeing... are social antibodies reacting against a 30-year old virus."

The aim of these diatribes is to cast a pall of illegitimacy over the egalitarian ethos embodied in the movements of the 1960s for black liberation, women's liberation, and gay liberation. Those attacks have had an effect evident in the writing of many centrist liberals like Stephen Carter. In Civility, as in his previous book, Integrity, Carter writes admiringly of Martin Luther King, Jr., and repeatedly acknowledges the contributions civil rights protesters made to American democracy. Yet, at the end of the day, he too portrays the 1960s as the purveyor of an ominous infection. "Manners are dying," he writes, "in part as a consequence of the Second American Revolution that erupted in the 1960s."

Readers and writers who appreciate the central achievements of the 1960s ought to do more to protect them against misleading criticism. Aspects of the decade were destructive, vicious, ignorant, and silly: the macho posturing of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver; the stupid violence of the Weather Underground; the cruel taunting of veterans of the Vietnam War; and the ignorant adulation of Mao, Ho, and Fidel. But these were not the decade's defining features. Its more significant bequests were the formal repudiation of white supremacy as a principle of government, the reestablishment of feminism as a force in American politics and culture, and the quickening of a gay mobilization. The 1960s inculcated an irreverence that questioned such tenets of our political culture as the belief that poverty is primarily the fault of lazy, improvident, stupid, or otherwise undeserving individuals. Unfortunately, under the influence of the virtuecrats, those ideas are again being elevated to the status of Laws of Nature.

The virtuecrats' portrayal of the 1960s mirrors their approach to contemporary society. They have fits over "coarse language," but homeless families and involuntary unemployment only get a shrug. They focus more indignation on the raunchy lyrics of gangsta rap than the horrific indifference that makes possible the miserable conditions that those lyrics often vividly portray. As Benjamin DeMott perceptively noted in a bracing polemic in the Nation in December 1996, "Seduced by Civility," the virtuecrats have helped to confuse the distinction between central and peripheral political evils.

Carter is often guilty of confusing lesser and greater evils, a fault illustrated by the following two sentences from his list of incivilities: "A basketball star kicks a photographer and is rewarded with a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract. A CEO fires thousands of workers and is rewarded with a multimillion-dollar bonus." Carter talks about these phenomena as if they were of equal social significance, though they are not.

Again, Carter is better than many virtuecrats. He laments how America today is "allowing market values to crowd out non-market values," a bad thing in his view because "markets are not particularly moral places." He complains, "The market pollutes our children, pollutes our politics . . . and it pollutes our souls. Capitalism counsels that we should be acquisitive, and, lacking alternative sources of meaning, we go ahead and acquire. If not nasty, we are, at least, as selfish as we wanna be."

Unfortunately, this note of populist economic dissatisfaction is a decidedly subordinate theme in Carter's analysis. Carter never looks closely at the ugly destructiveness and inequity that stems from values and decisions em braced by large sections of the for-profit world—think of the obscene misery erected by Big Tobacco.

Carter consistently spends more time and energy condemning the conduct of those with relatively little power than those who have a great deal of power. "Civility," he writes, "is the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others" through life. But, by this definition, one would think that Carter would have much more to say about America's upper classes and their political protectors. His unfortunate modesty on this subject, in contrast with his loquacious critique of ill-mannered hamburger flippers, is a major weakness.


Civility Crybabies

The civility movement also nourishes unrealistic assumptions about public debate that foster a crippling crybabyism. A key example is provided by liberals who fault conservative politicians for their "partisan" and "uncivil" criticism of sitting federal judges and their attempts to block Senate confirmation of Clinton nominees. Consider H. Lee Sarokin, a liberal judge whose most memorable ruling freed two men from lifetime imprisonment for a murder that they most likely did not commit. Sarokin also attained momentary notoriety when a higher court removed him from an anti-tobacco lawsuit for alleged bias and when he ruled that a public library could not lawfully ex clude a foul-smelling homeless man who bothered other pa trons. In 1996, only two years after having been elevated by President Clinton to the United States Court of Appeals, Sarokin resigned his seat around the same time that Orrin Hatch and Bob Dole criticized him for being an excessively liberal and lenient judge. In an open letter, Sarokin declared that criticism of the sort to which he had been subjected would "affect the independence of the judiciary and the public's confidence in it." Elaborating subsequently in the Nation in October 1997, Judge Sarokin called his resignation a "protest over the politicization . . . of the federal judiciary."

Sarokin maintains that he resigned his position to highlight and oppose the "Willie Hortonizing" of the judiciary. But was it plausible to believe that resigning in a huff would dissuade his opponents from pressing their attack? Of course not. Now even Sarokin himself concedes that his "grand gesture was a complete fizzle" that "emboldened" his enemies.

Many liberals warm to those like Judge Sarokin who decry the "politicization" of the federal judiciary. They are angered by Republican efforts to get political mileage from the faux populist attack on "out-of-touch" federal judges and move the ideological markers of "the mainstream" ever rightward. But the way to respond to such attacks is not to act as if criticism of federal judges is blasphemy. There is, after all, nothing wrong in principle with criticizing a judge for bad decisions or even voicing a desire to impeach a judge for intolerable decisions. It is the substantive merits of the case at hand that make criticism or campaigns for impeachment either good or bad. The abolitionists were right, for example, to vil ify and try to remove judges who cham p ioned slavery (even though for two centuries slavery was, in many areas, a lawful mode of property holding).

Two of the recent claims about improper politicization of the judiciary are especially noteworthy. One is that politicians' criticism of federal judges, particularly talk of impeachment because of substantive disagreements with rulings, is a threat to judicial independence. Not so. Federal judicial independence is secured by a constitutional provision that prohibits Congress from either decreasing the pay of federal judges or ousting them from office without cumbersome procedures and approval from both houses of Congress. Fortunately, the Constitution does not prohibit or even discourage criticism of federal judges. They are, after all, government officials who bear watching and comment as much as, if not more than, any representative or senator. Far from being subjected to too much scrutiny, federal judges are typically subjected to too little. Only rarely is press attention focused brightly upon the confirmation hearings of nominees to federal district courts or courts of appeals, despite their power once confirmed.

A second retort to conservatives that is commonly made by those who want to "depoliticize" debate is that the conservatives' criticisms erode public confidence in the judiciary. But all too often the public should repose little or no confidence in officials and when that is so, there is no good reason to pretend otherwise. The proper question is not whether criticism erodes public confidence but whether the performance in question deserves public confidence in the first place. The question can be suitably posed and answered only by grappling with the substantive issues. It cannot be resolved a priori by reference to some abstract belief in the virtue of public confidence in officialdom, including judicial officialdom.

The way to respond to the right's attack on liberal judges is to clarify the political character of judging and to persuade the public that our judicial politics foster a freer, safer, more equitable and prosperous America. Liberals shouldn't say, "How dare you criticize a federal judge" but instead, "Your criticisms are wrong and here is why."


Motivation: Off Limits?

One of the civility move ment's most frequent refrains is that incivility in political life is driving away from public service talented people who are unwilling to fight with unmannerly bullies. This is a matter of major concern to Deborah Tannen in The Argument Culture. Lamenting what she calls the "rise of destructive partisanship," Tannen highlights the decision in 1996 by 14 incumbent senators to forego seeking re-election. She de scribes the members of this group as "exceptionally thoughtful, fair, and moderate." She admiringly embraces sentiments voiced by Senator Robert Byrd: "The decorum in the Senate has deteriorated and political partisanship has run rife... When we accuse our colleagues of lying and deliver ourselves of reckless imprecations and vengeful maledictions against the President of the United States, and against other senators, it is no wonder—no wonder—that good men and women who have served honorably and long in [the Senate] are saying they have had enough."

Participation in democratic politics does impose special demands on those who seek political office. But that is as it should be. Elected officials can tax their fellow citizens, send them off to war, or punish them, even unto death, for the commission of crimes. One of the appropriate demands we make of those who wish to exercise democratic power is a willingness to endure the messy conflicts that unavoidably arise in a sharply divided democratic society.

To assess how harmful our rancorous politics may be would require us to examine whether our existing politics has really had the effect of dissuading increasing numbers of talented people from seeking positions in government. However, this question cannot be satisfactorily explored unless we abandon Tannen's naive methodology. She takes wholly at face value what politicians (whom she likes) tell her. If they say they resigned because of overheated contentiousness, she dutifully reports this as fact. But perhaps the senators who declined to run for re-election glimpsed electoral doom or more comfortable positions elsewhere.

If Tannen fails to cross-examine politicians' motives, Kathleen Hall Jamieson insists that doing so is positively bad, at least on the floor of the House of Representatives. A major wheel in the civility movement, Jamieson is dean of the Annenberg School for Communications, director of the Annenberg Public Policy program of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Dirty Politics and Packaging the Presidency. In her report on "Civility in the House of Representatives," which prepared the ground for a major event in the civility campaign, the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat of March 1997, Jamieson contends that it is "uncivil" for members of Congress to impugn the good faith of their colleagues. She also calls for a more stringent enforcement of the House rule that specifies that while one member may characterize another member's statement as untrue, he may not say that the (alleged) misrepresentation was deliberate.

Others, too, have decried what they perceive as excessive suspiciousness in our political culture. President Clinton urges that we "rid ourselves of this toxic atmosphere of cynicism." Stephen Carter insists that to enter the kingdom of civility, Americans must display more trust than they currently do toward those with whom they disagree. This particular thread of rhetoric is one of the least convincing features of the civility movement. Jamieson, Clinton, and Carter browbeat people whom they view as "cynics" because those people resist being saps. Well, I am one of those "cynical" people and utterly reject the counsel of anyone who contends that in matters of intellectual disputation or political struggle one should presumptively eschew questioning the motives of one's antagonists. Isn't it clear beyond any doubt that people—including presidents, senators, representatives, and judges—lie in a sufficient number of instances to make responsible citizens properly attentive always to the specter of deliberate falsehood? If that basic proposition is true—and I think that it is so self-evidently true as to require no further argument—I can see no reason for insisting, as does Jamieson, that there should exist an absolute bar, as a matter of parliamentary law, against a member of Congress questioning expressed motives or otherwise impugning the honesty (or sometimes it may simply be the self-awareness) of a colleague. It is wrong, of course, for someone to impugn another's motives without good cause. But if there is good cause to suspect another's motives, why should we not be able to say so?

Jamieson would probably argue that it is good policy to inhibit resorting to charges of duplicity because such charges will give rise to enmities that outlive any particular dispute and curtail the possibility of future collegial cooperation. This consideration undoubtedly (and rightly) prompts many (probably most) politicians to show care before attacking an opponent's honesty. They are aware that unfounded aspersions on another's character are not only hurtful to the target but also potentially hurtful to the accuser, because he or she may need the target's cooperation in the future and public opinion may turn against the libelant. Whether to cast such aspersions, however, should be a matter of pragmatic politics governed by prudence and not, as Jamieson suggests, a moral imperative codified in congressional rules. Is it Jamieson's position that a member of the House of Representatives ought not to be permitted to place in the Congressional Record a statement, substantiated by fact, that another member has lied about some matter of public importance? Does Carter really maintain that liberals ought not view with suspicion expressions of commitment to racial equality made by, say, Jesse Helms, Patrick Buchanan, or William Rehnquist? Carter and Jamieson ap pear to say yes, which is yet another reason to reject their view of how political battles ought to be fought.


Getting to Know You

Jamieson's report on incivility in Congress recommends, among other things, that members socialize with one another more often. As Jamieson put it: "It is easier to vilify those one doesn't know. If social contact increases comity, then increasing the number of activities that bring members of different parties (and their families) together off the floor should encourage a higher level of mutual respect during floor exchanges."

In accord with that suggestion, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which had commissioned and sponsored Hall's report, funded the March 1997 bipartisan retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Stephen Carter enthusiastically supports the retreat, calling it "so obviously a good idea that the tragedy is that some Members of Congress . . . choose not to attend." In an update on her initial report, Hall concludes that the retreat did help to dampen incivility because references to the retreat by members of Congress served to "remind members of the meaning of the Hershey experience" and to "establish common ground." Among the post-retreat statements by members of Congress that Hall highlights is one in which a representative, having proposed what he viewed as a legislative "compromise," makes reference to the Hershey weekend: "We had a bipartisan retreat, and part of the retreat's purpose was to see to it that we work together in a more civil manner."

What should one make of the Hershey retreat and the discussion that surrounds it?

First, in contrast to Professor Carter's claims, it is by no means "obvious" that the retreat was a good idea. For one thing, there is the matter of cost. The Pew Charitable Trusts spent $700,000, according to the director of its public policy program, so that members of Congress and their families could escape to a resort for a weekend for better socializing. Is a resort getaway for relatively wealthy congressional families the best use of three-quarters of a million dollars? True, Pew awards about $178 million in grants annually; the retreat was only a small percentage. Still, despite its great wealth, Pew, too, must pick and choose between competing projects that seek support. Some unknown project went unfunded in order to subsidize the Hershey retreat. Such choices at the very least pose genuine dilemmas. In this case, moreover, I cannot help but believe that there existed a more worthy cause than the congressional retreat, which was, at bottom, a publicity stunt.

Hall's post-retreat report contains little more than a few members' favorable comments about the retreat and some asides about "the Hershey experience." Hall argues that members seem to have somewhat lessened the frequency of name-calling and accusations of dishonesty. But there is no solid basis for thinking that such superficial changes will lead to real improvement in Congress's performance. Hall fails to mention, much less analyze, the substantive political context in which members of Congress acted or spoke. When Hall points to some member of Congress offering compromise legislation as an indication of Hershey's salutary influence, how can we sensibly view this with favor without any knowledge of what the compromise is about? Hall's report omits any reference to the identity of the legislator or the character of the proposed legislation. What if the "compromise" legislation proposed to shrink drastically governmental support for desperately poor people (in favor of more tax breaks for the wealthy) or to limit dramatically the reach of antidiscrimination laws on behalf of women? Wouldn't the rhetoric that Hall applauds then be insidious rather than laudable?


In The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen laments that that "the ability to compromise" is no longer considered "a great strength." She writes, "Henry Clay, an immensely influential nineteenth century senator and presidential contender, was called the 'Great Compromiser'—and this was said with admiration. It is hard to imagine a contemporary president being labeled in this way." But who was Henry Clay? And who were the people who admiringly dubbed him the Great Compromiser? The standard history textbook, The Great Republic, by Bernard Bailyn and others, calls Henry Clay "one of the greatest political manipulators in nineteenth century America." A slave owner, Clay gained the title "Great Compromiser" by seeking to preserve the Union even at the expense of perpetuating slavery. A key organizer of the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850, Clay supported the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the most despicable pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. Those who ap plauded Clay were, for the most part, people who deemed slavery a tolerable vice, abhorred the abolitionists, and exhibited the very instincts that the proponents of civility now seek to inculcate.

Some might dismiss this comparison on the grounds that we simply do not face social cleavages with anything near the depth and ferocity as the conflict over slavery. But this misperceives the intensity of feelings underlying the various battles being waged over the country's future. It underestimates the alienation felt by rappers, Afro-centrists, and kindred outsiders who insist that their distinctive argot, clothing, gestures, and worldviews deserve respect and not ridicule. It also underestimates the sense of desperation felt by those who believe intensely that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is pathological, and that America is rightly viewed as a Christian nation. To the picketers, harrassers, and bombers of abortion clinics and their sympathizers (including the many who, for reasons of prudence, distance themselves from the arsonists), the conflict today is at least as compelling as that which faced Henry Clay. It is precisely because our conflicts are so intense and seemingly in tractable that we will need more guidance than the new civilitarians have offered to help us all get along.

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