Thursday, May 10, 2012

Behaving Badly

Monday was graduation at my seminary alma mater. The commencement address was given by the President of The University of Notre Dame.
So of all the questions posed in this campaign season -- the most important one is rarely asked. Now, when the country is increasingly diverse, when the number of disputed moral questions is rising, when citizens have deep and opposing passions that neither side will give up for the sake of civility -- Can citizens of the United States learn to express their convictions in more skillful, more respectful ways?
"Neither side will give up for the sake of civility". Right there is the nub. "Civility", whatever else it might mean, has somehow been elevated as a high social good; that people hold passionate, convicted views on any number of issues is nothing compared to the demand that we not let these passions override the need for civility.

What a load of crap.

With all due respect to the Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, I fail to see how some arbitrary understanding of "civility" overrides other social goods. Like, oh, social justice and compassion. Or maybe racial justice and economic democracy. Perhaps the multiple violations of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights from government intrusion by both the Bush and Obama Administrations are important, but nearly as important as being civil? Seriously? At what point did it become more important that we disagree without rancor than pursuing justice? At what point did we suddenly understand it was a far better social good not to get all upset when some people say things that violate what others feel are basic social or personal moral rules? Why, if I may be so blunt, should I be civil with those who advocate positions that I find not only socially disruptive but morally reprehensible?

Then, of course, there's the construction in which this is set. "Neither side" will yield, therefore both sides - because there seem to be only two sides - are equally at fault. Never mind Nixon's Southern Strategy, combined with the demand for "law and order" were little more than continuing the politics of racial division, but expanding them beyond the borders of the old Confederacy. Never mind the decades in which people critical of this or that policy of the United States government were not only in error, but enemies of the state. Never mind the on-going vilification of the incumbent President for his race, the religion of his father (in which he was educated for a time); the insistence that his politics pose not only a danger to the smooth operation of the economy, but are actively antithetical to our traditions and principles and laws. All this, and so much more, did not emerge from "both sides".

This odd point-of-view, that we all have to play nice in the sandbox of the public square, even when some who wish to play by the rules are constantly harassed by a band of bullies who will stop at nothing to take the sandbox for themselves, believing it to be theirs and theirs alone, is not limited to persons in positions of authority like President Jenkins. An FB friend, a United Methodist minister in Indiana, made a point of calling out "hateful" comments on a story about Sen. Richard Lugar's defeat in the Republican primary on Tuesday. The problem is, the comments in question just aren't that hateful. While there is certainly a certain amount of disdain sprinkled with sarcasm, in particular at the notion that Lugar, facing his first serious primary challenge in his career, wasn't up to the task of actually campaigning, there is nothing hateful about them. Yet, as the op-ed in question makes clear, a career like Lugar's isn't necessarily a good thing, particularly in a participatory democracy. Not only should Lugar's age, 79, be a legitimate issue for voters, but far more generally it's a good thing that folks challenged him. Our politics had become sclerotic not least because the same people held the same offices year and year after year. Lugar, for example, first won election to the United States Senate when the parents of children voting for the first time this year were in grade school. I do believe, for all that he deserves the thanks of a grateful state for his years of service, being defeated in a primary is hardly a sign of the decline of the West. Chiding Lugar for his complacency isn't "hateful". It's just politics.

I am quite tired of calls for civility in our public discourse. For some reason, it is believed that if we disagree with an air of comity, that might lead to a willingness to act in the nation's best interests. This belief, shared not least by our current President who continues to act as if giving the Republicans something will induce them to return the favor, is demonstrably false. Yet, here it is yet again, on display as a prominent cleric and academic advises matriculating seminarians to observe the rules of civility, even when faced by opponents who share none of our social, political, or moral priorities. 

Seriously. No.

It is far better to speak our minds, even if this violates someone's notion of "civility", than it is to adhere to these rules (whatever they might be) for one simple reason: People disagree about stuff. These disagreements are important, because they impact our lives, the lives of our fellow citizens, and the state of the nation as a whole. Disagreements get ugly because people care about these things a great deal. It would be nice, I suppose, if folks who honestly and fervently believe that gay marriage will destroy the social fabric of the United States and those who think a country that discriminates against a class of citizens for no reason justifiable under law is not only acting against its principles but promoting ongoing bigotry and even violence against some of its citizens could sit down, agree to disagree, and try to work something out. They can't, however, because, however you come down on the matter of same-sex marriage, your opponent promotes a position that violates one's sense of personal and social morality. How is civility possible?

How is waving goodbye to a politician who many feel outstayed his welcome "hateful"? Did anyone in the comments linked above accuse Lugar of a crime, accuse him of some horrid violation of moral conduct? Are there accusations not rooted in fact about Lugar's personal background, political philosophy, or actions as a United States Senator? Had any of those things appeared, I might go along with the description. As they stand now, though, I found the comments slightly amusing, and rooted in notions with which I share some agreement. If that makes me "hateful", then I suppose I'll wear the badge with pride. When simple disagreement, and the fact that important matters are sometimes discussed with volume and emotional involvement, become social vices, I do believe the cure is worse than the alleged disease.

Virtual Tin Cup

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