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A striking and disturbing factor in our entire discussion of civility and political rhetoric is the lack of anyone citing or practicing the lesson of the Sermon on the Mount: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
Calls for civility that come from a partisan and focus on the opposition amount to, “Hey, you guys should be more civil when arguing with me, or those who agree with me.”
A call for civility that explicitly includes the speaker’s allies is better, but even that approach carries an element of “everyone else should be less like themselves and more like me.” For a call for civility to carry any weight, it should preferably come with a bit of contrition for the speaker’s past rhetorical excesses. (Is there anyone on Earth who does not look back and regret something they said or wrote, or wish they had chosen their words carefully?*)
Otherwise, it amounts to a call for unilateral disarmament: “We could have a civil discourse if you unhinged losers would stop saying nasty things about all of the noble, sophisticated geniuses on my side.”
Of course, many of the least civil and most incendiary voices in our political and media worlds achieved their high stature specifically because of their tone. If the most fiery talk-show hosts on the right, like Michael Savage, agreed to be warm and conciliatory and kind to every caller, would their audiences still listen? Would their shows even be entertaining? Could MSNBC’s lineup thrive without seething and fuming and denouncing? Having established their identity and built their viewership that way, is it realistic to expect them to be polite, amiable, and fair to the opposing side?
Beyond that, do the uncivil even recognize that they’re uncivil? Don’t they pat themselves on the back for being authentic, unvarnished, and passionate, and providing real perspective instead of the watered-down, bland pablum of the other voices? Wouldn’t they perceive “civility” as a code word for selling out?
I suspect that the uncivil voices on the other side probably stopped at the first paragraph and began writing about my effort to “exploit the shooting with Christianist propaganda” or something.
* It’s unfair for me to call on others to do this without doing it myself, so here’s my start. Of everything I’ve written for NRO, nothing garnered as much reaction as this 2005 piece about Anne Rice, New Orleans, and the reaction to Hurricane Katrina. I read it today and cringe — too snide, too snippy, too callous when thousands of people were still enduring great hardship, coping with the loss of their homes and mourning their dead. For whatever her flaws, Rice was writing about watching her friends and neighbors suffer, and if her New York Times op-ed was too heated and incendiary, lashing out at the rest of the country for perceived indifference . . . well, there are worse sins. Even if her conclusions were wrong, her sense of abandonment was real, and my belittling tone was the wrong response. There was a time to examine whether bad decisions by the residents of New Orleans and Louisiana had exacerbated the problems of responding to the hurricane, but my piece was too early and in completely the wrong tone.