Mr. Obama wants us to be more polite . . .
Here’s why he’s going to be disappointed—
. . . and much of it is good.
First the good part . . .
Most of the recent interest in greater “civility” is merely a gambit for advancing political correctness under a different label. And political correctness is not about politeness but about power and control– the power to control how and what people say and ultimately what they think. Under that regime, resistance is deemed incivility. Resistance is good.
Second, vigorous debate is inherent to the American way of life. Brutal regimes are most polite in their public discourse because nothing is really ever decided in that arena. Healthy democracies though are characteristically impolite because public discourse determines the future and too much cordiality raises suspicions of backroom deals.
Moreover democracies owe their very existence to what’s known as the “adversarial system,” a way of resolving conflicts that goes back to the ancient Greeks who reasoned it was better to “kill” one’s opponents in a figurative way on the debating floor than in a literal sense on the battlefield. That system has dominated Western culture for 2500 years and is something to celebrate, not to bemoan.
Now for the bad part . . .
A limited alternative to the adversarial system is the concept of “cooperative conflict,” a notion pioneered by Morton Deutsch back in the 40′s in which conflict is resolved in a win-win outcome based on the existence of shared goals between the conflicting parties.
The civility of past generations owes much to such shared goals, but win-wins are increasingly hard to find these days because the major political parties no longer have much of anything in common.
Democrats, for example, ostensibly want to ensure equitable outcomes while Republicans champion equitable opportunities. These goals are mutually exclusive– you can’t have both.
So the very best thing that could possibly be achieved under the present circumstances is perhaps a grudging respect for the integrity of the other side. That too though is beyond reach because neither party is willing to suffer for or even clearly articulate its ultimate aims.
The Dems, for example, gained control of the House and the Senate by electing conservative candidates who then helped them ram through the most liberal legislation in the history of the country.
Republicans, at the same time, lost control of Congress and the Presidency by acting very much like Democrats.
So neither Party has integrity and the natural response from all sides is a rude, but unsurprising fury.
In the meantime, civility is a lower-order value and can never be an end in itself, nor can it draw together the intractable.
Moreover, it is especially inappropriate for Democrats to be champions of greater civility in the face of their historical affinities for both figurative and literal bomb throwers– from Keith Olbermann and Jeremiah Wright to Bill Ayers.
If Mr. Obama really cares about greater civility, he needs to look outside the Democratic party for a credible spokesman to communicate that message.