A Note About the Rhetoric of Violence

Shepard Fairey MegaphoneWhile it is obvious that we should all strive for civility in our politics and our everyday lives, there is a certain way that it is a little bit of a tricky prospect.

On the one hand, as we discussed earlier this year, political correctness can be a civility red herring. Far from placing us in a position where we are claiming and caring for our identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, political correctness is about sublimating our needs and beliefs in favor of the priorities of others.

Political correctness, for example, does not tell us that we should not harbor resentments toward shifting demographics in the United States – and it doesn’t tell us how we can think reflectively about usefully sharing our physical or political space. Rather, it tells us that if we hold unpopular biases, we should secret them away because it is not socially acceptable for those parts of ourselves to exist, and we will be shamed if we express them.

Political correctness, in other words, shuts down communication. And good communication is key for civility to flourish.

But political correctness is not the only, or even the most pernicious, rhetorical force that works like this. And though we should be wary of ideologies and their adherents when they call for us to silence ourselves, we should be especially wary when they call for us to silence others.

This, in particular, is the problem with ideologies that utilize violence as a rhetorical strategy.

Like political correctness, the threat of violence shuts down communication. It does so not by telling us that our needs are unacceptable, but by telling us that our needs are the only ones that matter – that the needs of others are of so little consequence that it’s only right to dismiss them out of hand.

Violent rhetoric achieves this in two ways at once. First, it’s factionalizing. It points us toward some external enemy, real or imagined, and insists: it’s us or them. We who are insiders must stand together as a group, because otherwise the outsiders will take what’s ours.

And second, it recasts the outsiders as monsters. It suggests that because they seem unlike us, or because they disagree with us, or sometimes even because they are weaker than us, their ideas not only have no merit, they are poisonous. The needs and beliefs of those outside the faction are not three-dimensional or indicative of any actual needs and beliefs at all; instead, they are meant only to harm us and weaken our social standing.

The result is a kind of paranoia: the notion that in a world of limited resources, we must stand with the people we identify as most like us because, certainly, that’s what the next guy is doing.

The result is petty hatred: the feeling that people who don’t share our characteristics – race, or religion, or politics, or whatever other factor – are somehow inferior, or disgusting, or debased.

The result is that violent rhetoric tends to become violent deeds: first meant to stop the supposed invaders, but ultimately to suppress even the softest whispers of dissent from within.

And the result is that while civility seems like such a simple thing so much of the time, in the face of prominent figures espousing violence and threats, the high road can sometimes feel very narrow, indeed.

In light of our current national flirtation with violent rhetoric, it might behoove those of us who wish to advance the cause of civility to ask some basic questions about the place of tolerance in a pluralist society. Writing in 1947, directly in the wake of one of the most tragic outbreaks of ideologically driven violence we have known, philosopher Karl Popper suggested that there is such a thing as a paradox of tolerance: that unlimited tolerance, as he writes, must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Popper, writing at the dawn of modern laws against hate speech in Europe, suggested that we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal. That suggestion is obviously unsuitable to the culture and circumstances of the United States, and we don’t advocate it.

But he did make an important point. He said that we must distinguish between those intolerant ideologies that can be countered by rational argument and kept in check by public opinion, and those that reject rational argument – that forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists.

As advocates of civility, we recognize that communication is key. The possibility of achieving desirable outcomes through a civil process requires that I be able to make a reasoned case for my needs and beliefs to you, and that you are able to do the same for me.

Our political system exists largely within the realm where this kind of civil exchange is possible, even if we don’t always achieve it perfectly. But we must remain ever vigilant against encroaching ideologies that reject rationality in favor of fists. Our civility, after all, makes us vulnerable to the paradox of tolerance. And if we are not careful, within our desire to accommodate a plurality of voices, we potentially plant the seeds of civility’s demise.

Image: “London Mural” by Shepard Fairey. Photograph by George Rex via Flickr, licensed CC-BY-SA.

Civility Linkblogging: The Classroom, The Senate, and India

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This week’s items are eclectic, but threaded through them is an important theme: the value of listening, and the importance of thoughtfulness, in making decisions for groups of people with heterogenious points of view. Stacie Schultz at Edification in Progress reminds us — rightly — that people from the other end of the ideological spectrum aren’t out to ruin the world. Ann McFeatters tells us that we are colleagues, not enemies. Namita Bhandare of The Hindustan Times tells us that without tolerance we can’t have civility, and absent civility, we have nothing left but acrimony and blame.

As always, if you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Voters Must Demand Civility, Thoughtfulness from Candidates.
Posted by Ann McFeatters at The Naples News, November 5, 2015

Clinton shouldn’t say, even jokingly, that Republicans are her “enemy.” Carson shouldn’t compare Obamacare to Nazism. Voters must not give credence to Donald Trump’s insistence he should be president because he’s the loudest, rudest and richest. Marco Rubio can’t assume his youth, heritage and dismissive attitude toward his onetime mentor mean he deserves the presidency.

Voters must demand civility and thoughtfulness. They must insist on serious policy proposals and in-depth knowledge about our problems. An Iowa man recently said, “I’m for Ben Carson because he doesn’t yell.” Really, that is not the gold standard for choosing the most powerful leader in the world.

The Road to Tolerance Begins with Civility.
Posted by Namita Bhandare at The Hindustan Times, November 6, 2015

It falls upon the party in power to restore some normalcy. Playing the victim, blaming the media and seeing plots against it won’t cut it.

The journey to tolerance begins with an ability to listen to another point of view. And sometimes it takes a trip to the hills, away from raucous, argumentative Delhi, to realise that what is at stake is something very fundamental to society: Civility. If only we’d stop shouting and start listening.

A Renewed Call for Senate Civility.
Posted by Ed Feulner at The Washington Times, November 9, 2015

Hearing that it was his first speech might lead you to assume that Mr. Sasse was simply grandstanding — playing the part of a brash newcomer with big ambitions. Wrong. Mr. Sasse was in office for more than a year before he made his speech. Listening. Talking to other senators in private. Trying to diagnose the problem with some precision.

In doing do, Mr. Sasse was doing something that many lawmakers fail to do. He wasn’t just talking the talk, as they say. He was walking the walk. For it is his contention that much of the problem with the Senate today can be traced to a failure to listen. To consider all points of view. To carefully and thoughtfully weigh all options before speaking up.

Civility: Actions Without Humility Do Harm.
Posted by Orlaine I. Gabert at The Greenbay Press Gazette, November 10, 2015

Treating another human being as being unworthy is, of itself, a violent act. Now that individual has violence in his heart and in some way must let it out. Some of the results in our country have been slavery rebellions, civil war, strikes, murder, and mass shootings.

Not having any reason or understanding of being humble gives one license to act without kindness, courtesy, or respect.

Controversy With Civility.
Posted by Stacie Schultz at Edification in Progress, November 15, 2015

Take a moment and consider your political leanings that inform how you believe the world could be a better place. Do you have them fully-pictured in your head? Perfect. Now, think about people who disagree with your notions. Perhaps they espouse a different party’s views, or oppose one of your staunchly held positions. You’re probably feeling annoyed even at the mere thought of their ideas. But, take another moment and consider this: do you believe that they are out to ruin the world? That making the world worse is their inherent goal?

When I do this exercise with college students, to teach about the meaning of “controversy with civility”, nearly all of them take pause at the final questions. They chuckle, shake their heads, and murmur, “no, probably not.” We then discuss how remembering that most of society is working to better the world, just with different approaches, can help us tolerate and work with those we disagree with.