Monday, March 24, 2014


When people complain about a lack of civility in public discourse, it occurs to me that there are occasions during which civility is not considered a virtue. And when civility is seen as a cover for weakness, it's considered an active character flaw. There are many circumstances under which it's expected, if not demanded that one will respond with a certain level of vitriol, at least. I think that what we're seeing is an expansion of those circumstances because we have moved (and society moves in and out of this) into a place where people want to see their positions as self-evidently good, just and right. Therefore disagreement moves from being a debate over means to a conflict over ends. And if my ends are on the side of Truth, Justice and the American Way - your disagreement with me must mean that you are either inappropriately irrational, gullible or deliberately Evil - all positions that, it is commonly felt, can justify opprobrium.

(Note that I am not, at this point, dealing with intentional trolling of others as means of expressing power over them, limiting my comments to sincere incivility.)

Many people do not make a distinction between what works for them and what is best for the society as a whole. To paraphrase Charles Wilson: “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for me and vice versa.” That conflation of public and private interest means that people can take differences over public policy personally and differences over private policy as an attack on the public. Both can create circumstances in which people may feel that even remarkable levels of incivility are warranted.

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