The New Civility in the New Media
February 25, 2011 8 Comments
I preach civility, but I’m not pining for an era of idyllic political courtesy and fairness that never in fact existed. I believe our political discourse today is richer, better, and more likely to yield good policy than it was before the new media.
I preach civility for three reasons: (1) selfishly, because I want to continue to have some of the profound friendships I do with people of different sensibilities, and continue to talk deliriously about everything, including (forgive me grandma) “politics and religion”; (2) because the alternative to civility, petulance and belligerence, may feel good, the way three double-fudge sundaes feel good, in the moment, but hardly befit adults; and (3) because I’m always driving toward a logic of political discourse, a loose set of rules that give us common ground in agreeing that x or y is unacceptable, so that we can move on and focus on discussing actual issues.
The latter is especially important because if we can agree to identify bad political speech where we see it, then we’re somewhat less likely to retreat, to the detriment of dialogue, into our respective spheres of grievances and lies! lies! they always lie!
But in promoting civility, I don’t believe we’re worse now, angrier, sniffier, more inclined to hammer another human being, than we ever have been as a people. In fact, I think we’re a little better.
LBJ thought Gerald Ford’s problem (Ford was then GOP House leader) was that he had “played football too long without a helmet,” and “was so dumb he can’t walk and fart at the same time.” Senator Helms said of Senator Carol Moseley-Braun in 1993 that he had been told she didn’t have “a grandfather or great-grandfather who was a slave, that she came from Trinidad or Jamaica or somewhere.” Rep Pete Stark (D-Ca) called Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Cn) a “whore” in 1995. Rep. Dornan called President Clinton a “draft-dodging adulterer” and “sleazeball who can’t keep his pants on.”
That was the nice stuff.
- Thomas Paine had this to say about George Washington: “treacherous in private friendship… and a hypocrite in public life,” and wondered whether Washington was “an apostate or an imposter; whether [he had] abandoned good principles, or whether [he] ever had any.”
- John Adams said of Ben Franklin, “his whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency.”
- Franklin said of Adams that he “means well for his country… but sometimes, and in some other things, is absolutely out of his senses.”
- Alexander Hamilton was less circumspect on Adams: “the man is more mad than I ever thought him and I shall soon be led to say as wicked as he is mad.”
- John Adams was called a “repulsive pedant” and “a hideous hermaphroditical character” by a writer secretly paid by Thomas Jefferson.
- Adams supporters accused Jefferson of favoring the teaching of “murder, rape, adultery and incest.”
- Hamilton said of Jefferson, “he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth and … he is a contemptible hypocrite.”
- To which Jefferson replied, “I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head.”
- In the 1828 election, Andrew Jackson’s campaign called John Quincy Adams “the Pimp.”
- Adams’ supporters called Jackson a “murderer” and a “cannibal,” and called Jackson’s mother a “common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers.”
- James Buchanan, who had a congenital condition causing his head to tilt to the left, was accused of having failed in an attempt to hang himself.
- Political campaigns had become so vicious that Congress enacted in 1838 a prohibition of dueling (i.e., standing apart and honorably shooting guns at each other, which had already taken the life of Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel with Aaron Burr over a perceived insult).
- Northern Union Democrats distributed incendiary pamphlets against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 campaign, including “Abraham Africanis,” and another which claimed that “a vote for Lincoln was a vote for racial mixing.”
Alexis de Tocqueville said of Americans in 1840 that they “frequently allow themselves to be borne away, far beyond the bounds of reason, by a sudden passion or a hasty opinion and sometimes gravely commit strange absurdities.” De Tocqueville attributed this tendency to our democratic system. “It is astonishing what imprudent language a public man may sometimes use in free countries, and especially in democratic states, without being compromised, whereas in absolute monarchies a few words dropped by accident are enough to unmask him forever and ruin him without hope of redemption.”
Yes, our sudden passion and sacred First Amendment freedom produce “strange absurdities.” Moreover, my strange absurdities are your eminent rationalities. We are most certain the Other is absurd. Our very robust freedom includes the freedom to be absurdly certain. We face no consequence if we are wrong. No government visits injury upon us for mistaken notions. Our free marketplace of ideas yields the meanest, most intemperate, thoughtless, self-righteous and gloriously diverse speech in the history of the species.
And still, undergirding it all, is the eloquence of Justice Brandeis in the 1927 case of Whitney v. California: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” That is, the remedy for bad speech is more speech.
And so we stumble on, haranguing our political enemies, certain we are right and they are wrong, and we multiply absurdly certain speech. But today, unlike 1840 or 1940 or 1980, speech truly multiplies. Public communication in the days of the old media was monopolistic. A few people decided what was communicable, and the rest of us listened and learned only what those few people deemed communicable. If we didn’t like what Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley or Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel had to tell us, well, too bad.
But now we decide what is communicable. We speak to each other. We mediate the news. We disagree with the newsmakers and manipulators. We are equal to Walter and David and Peter and Ted. And it’s messy and woefully unprofessional.
Civility, then, is not an old virtue, but a radically new one — an imperative to learn how to behave ourselves in this new wide-open space of citizen newscasters. We’re still a bit like children in a sandbox, such is our giddiness not merely to be liberated from passive acquiescence to the Evening News, but to be empowered to do it ourselves.
The monopolists — Walter and David and Peter and Ted — were gentlemen. Gentlemen with their biases to be sure, but gentlemen. We’re not. Ted Koppel understandably laments the end of the era of gentleman newscasters. And now it is our obligation to learn a measure of professionalism on the job.
That is the project of civility.