Politics & Policy

Civility Is Overrated

Don’t sweat the Left’s harsh language, just dismantle its arguments.

Once again, we are supposed to be outraged and appalled. This time, it is because Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser who appears not to count articulacy among his many virtues, hyperbolically claimed on national television that President Obama has no intention of “negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest” and then insinuated for good measure that Republicans are arsonists making “ransom demands.”

We are also expected to be vexed because Harry Reid has taken incessantly to labeling small-government types as “anarchists,” because Al Gore believes Republicans to be “terrorists,” and because Senator Tom Harkin has accused the Tea Party of being “every bit as dangerous” to America as was “the breakup and the Civil War.” Saying such things is apparently beyond the pale.

While I find the double standards on which the Left routinely operates to be as nauseating as the next man, I must respectfully decline to be too irked by the harsh language of harsh politics.

Ultimately, conservatives who react vehemently to metaphor and overstatement are playing by the Left’s unlovely rules, implicitly accepting the preposterous notion that unreal hyperbole can lead to real violence, indulging in the routine censorship upon which progressives invariably insist, and, most crucially, aiding and abetting those who intend to make our discourse less diverse and more boring — people who have turned political language, as George Orwell predicted, into a form that “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Civility is nice; originality, variation of expression, and good old-fashioned vim are nicer.

Maintaining that some terms are intrinsically unacceptable also contributes to the creation of an environment in which speaking the truth will be frowned upon. Despite the post–Joseph McCarthy reluctance to say as much, some people actually are “socialists” and some policies actually are “socialistic” — “communistic,” even. Our inability to say as much is problematic.

This is to say that the primary trouble with Dan Pfeiffer’s characterization of his political opponents as “people with a bomb strapped to their chest” is not that it is rude, but that it is an inaccurate metaphor. There is nothing wrong with the Republican-led House requesting serious concessions in exchange for agreeing to an increase in the debt ceiling, because this is what the House is for. If Pfeiffer were correct in his characterization, it wouldn’t matter that he used such words. On the contrary, it would be a creative and reasonable way of describing what was going on — politeness be damned.

Likewise, Harry Reid’s relentless accusations of “anarchism” are questionable not because accusing the elected representatives of a center-right party of being nihilists is “inflammatory” or “divisive” or “disrespectful,” but because saying such a thing is witless and nonsensical. As for Harkin, who contended that the Tea Party is “every bit as dangerous” to America as was “the Civil War,” well, this is so historically illiterate as to make one’s teeth hurt.

We describe political processes in strong, usually martial, language for a good reason: because what we call “politics” is little more than our peaceful, if turbulent, replacement for physical violence. We say that we “fight” in “campaigns” in “battleground” states, that we “fire warning shots” at “opponents” that we “target,” and that we launch “offenses” because these are literally the things that we would be doing to settle our differences if we didn’t have peaceful institutions to substitute for violent ones.

The term “terrorists” is admittedly a little extreme — especially given recent events — but even that term pales in comparison to the severe lexicon that was regarded as normal for much of American history, and that doesn’t seem to have done much harm to the polity.

Back in 1996, during the debate over welfare reform, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, generally regarded as a serious thinker and heavyweight politician, accused the advocates of change of contriving “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction” and predicted that “those involved will take this disgrace to their graves.”

Reformers, he charged, were “literally arranging flowers on the coffin of the provision for children in the Social Security Act,” acquiescing to legislation that “will produce a surge in the number of homeless children such that the current problem of ‘the homeless’ will seem inconsequential.”

Go a little further back and you will find that, by historical standards, modern political discourse is positively charming. During the course of the election of 1800, newspapers alligned with Thomas Jefferson and his ideological allies described John Adams, who was then the president, as a “hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force nor firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” as a “blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who wants to start a war with France,” whose great delight lies in “importing mistresses from Europe” and who is secretly trying to become king.

Adams’s brigade fought back, contending that “if Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” And not just that. “The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

“Are you prepared,” they asked, “to see your dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, children writhing on a pike?” Jefferson, a political opponent said, was the “son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.”

It is probably inevitable that human beings will presume their own eras to be exclusively tempestuous, and, consequently, that they will fall prey to the impression that political language has become unprecedentedly extreme.

But this impression is false; language, if anything, has improved. What has changed in the last few decades, perhaps, is that politics has effectively become a spectator sport, covered not for its content but for its process and for the technique of its participants.

Sadly, how one plays the game has become as important as what one has to say, a development that has afforded political players the opportunity to knock their opponents for the “inappropriate” language they deploy and thus to discredit them without having ever to engage with the substance of their ideas.

But far from reacting to this by indulging the impulses of the Left and shouting “he called me an anarchist,” conservatives should take to calmly explaining why the designation is wrong. Our political language, crucial to our culture, depends on their doing so.

I would propose that the best way to deal with our unavoidably overwrought discourse is neither to draw up our own list of grievances nor to complain about those who throw bombs while complaining about bomb throwers, but instead to allow our ideological opponents free and open rein to say whatever ridiculous things pop into their heads — and then to respond as if they intended to be taken at face value.

Next time that Harry Reid implies that trying to limit the largest government in the history of the world by a percentage point or two is equivalent to ushering in the chaos and iniquity of the Thunderdome, conservatives would benefit from pulling out a calculator and a dictionary and ripping the claim calmly and thoroughly to shreds — while leaving their indignation safely at home, where it belongs.

– Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.


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