In his September 27 G-file e-mail newsletter (subscribe!) and then a bit more yesterday, Jonah has written eloquently about the online fury directed at him and at other conservatives who questioned the recent shutdown strategy and about the weariness and frustration that follows when commenters and others impugn your commitment to principles you’ve fought for much of your adult life. A difference over tactics does not necessarily indicate a difference in commitment or goals, and to presume so (vehemently!) is almost always wrong.
At the same time, however, I dislike urging civility for its own sake. To be clear, I don’t think Jonah has done that (he hardly belongs to the civility police), but we should simply choose our targets — and our manner — carefully.
We need to acknowledge that rage inflicts a real cost on its target. I’m nowhere near Jonah’s stature in the conservative world, but I’ve felt conservative rage before, and — frankly — it can hurt. As some NRO readers know, I started supporting Mitt Romney for president all the way back in 2005 and eventually started a small group called Evangelicals for Mitt (a bit more back story here). I did so because I knew Mitt Romney to be a man of integrity whom I believe was the best, most well-rounded conservative to run in 2008 and in 2012.
To make a long story short, I was shocked at the level and intensity of the vitriol in response. Some of it was downright creepy (late-night, threatening calls to my home), some of it was incredibly misinformed and even slanderous, but most of it was intensely angry. The low point came in 2008 (pre-Tea Party, so no one should think contemporary strife is unprecedented) when I deployed to Iraq and completely disengaged from the campaign. An acquaintance (who knew of my longtime pro-life legal work) tracked down my Army e-mail address and e-mailed me at my Forward Operating Base to tell me that he was ashamed of me and questioned my love of my country. This e-mail arrived just as I was grieving the very recent loss of a good friend in our unit, and it hurt — far more than it should have.
Yes, when people put themselves out into the public square — even in modest ways — they do invite criticism, but they are still people and are still subject to the normal range of human reactions in the face of personal attacks.
At the same time, however, that we acknowledge the costs of rage, sometimes it’s justified. I’ll never forget the first time I felt deep political/cultural rage. It was 1992, and I was surrounded by a gaggle of wildly exuberant lefty law-school classmates. The Supreme Court had just decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and three Republican-appointed justices had just provided the decisive swing votes to uphold Roe v. Wade and continue the legally-sanctioned slaughter of millions of unborn children. Keep in mind, this occurred after Republicans had won three of four post-Roe presidential elections (including two by Ronald Reagan) and after conservatives had fought to secure the nominations of each Republican appointee in the Casey majority. That’s when I realized that elections do not always have the consequences we imagine they do.
How many Caseys must we experience before we realize that, no, we cannot trust the next election will make the right difference, nor can we trust the protestations of aggrieved self-described conservatives? In fact, they don’t always share our convictions, and they are not often willing to endure even the most moderate of career risks for the sake of those convictions. The consequences of our own political gullibility and good will can be severe and even — in the case of the struggle against abortion — deadly.
So, no. I don’t believe in civility for it’s own sake, but what should we do?
I have a few rules I ground in my faith and my commitment to conservative principles, which I believe flow directly from my faith. First, I realize that I’m a fallen, mistake-prone person. Given my own manifest inadequacies, I must and should realize that I don’t always see things clearly, am frequently wrong, and sometimes don’t even know what I’m talking about (when I think I do). This leads to extreme caution in judging others’ commitments and certainly their character. In fact, I’d much rather praise personal virtue than spend my energies attacking perceived personal vice.
Second, I keep the focus on actions and ideas, not individuals. I have good friends who disagree with me on the left and right, and those friends are seeking to do the right thing, but are often quite wrong. I can and must vigorously debate their ideas, but my goal is not to make them suffer but instead to change their mind. Insults tend to hurt hearts, not change hearts.
Third, when attacked I should have the self-awareness to realize that my first response should be to evaluate the merit of the argument and either respond persuasively or change course if I can’t. In other words, avoid the defensive crouch. Back during the campaign, that meant many, many hours of effort and energy which, sadly, did not succeed. But the instant I responded to vitriol with vitriol, I lost. The goal is not to display rapier wit or create an Internet-tough-guy persona (an amusing concept all by itself) but to achieve real-world outcomes.
Finally, this is not some “can’t we all get along” plea. The differences between various strands of conservatism (much less between conservatives and liberals) can be real, and the stakes are very, very high. The battles are messy, and they’ll likely get even messier as we approach the 2014 primary season. But justifiable anger should not lead to unjustifiable actions.
In other words, to quote the best of books: “Be angry and do not sin.”