civility

Understanding “Incivility”

Deal W. Hudson

Published October 25, 2010

Is the religious right uncivil? Conservatives Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner think so. In a joint Huffington Post column titled “The Success and Failure of the Religious Right,” they argue:

The language and tone of the religious right have often been apocalyptic, off-putting, and counterproductive. “Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews,” said Jerry Falwell, “so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians.” In 1994, a conspiracy-mongering video promoted by Falwell associated President Bill Clinton with drug dealing and murder.

Such melodrama, or hysteria, is good for fund-raising, but bad for American politics. It makes a civil political conversation impossible, and does a disservice to the cause of a Christian witness to society.

Gerson and Wehner’s complaint is rooted in a concern about being politically effective. They realize, correctly, that the occasional rude or crazed outburst from a religious right leader has led to a loss of credibility affecting the entire movement.

While that’s true, it’s nevertheless unavoidable. Those men and women of faith who are drawn into politics to fight for the endangered values they believe in do so because they’re passionate about combating evil. I’ve always found it surprising that anyone would expect only calm and rational discussion from large groups of citizens who are outraged by the murder of unborn children, the destruction of the institution of marriage, government attacks on religious liberty, and the pervasive takeover of education by postmodern multiculturalists.

Further, I’ve yet to see a successful political movement that wasn’t fueled by a considerable amount of passionate outrage. That was true for Obama in 2008, and it will be the same for the GOP in the upcoming election. Passion is like fuel – sure, you can waste it unproductively, but at the same time, you can’t drive a grassroots movement without it. Nor can you control it from the perch of a Washington, D.C. think tank.

The next time you hear someone complain about the religious right’s (or even the Tea Party’s) so-called lack of civility, I would suggest you say something like this: “Of course they speak with passion – they’re concerned about losing the character of the country they love, and are outraged that the core values that once guided our nation are being ignored.”

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to issues of civility – after all, I was raised to be gentlemanly and courteous in all circumstances and was told these qualities should belong to every man. But I quickly noticed three things: First, those who note the rudeness of their political opponents seemed oblivious to the same behavior displayed by their allies.

Second, the “incivility” charge is almost always used against conservatives, and rarely against those on the political Left.

And third, the “incivility” charge is too often used as an excuse to shut down discussion. This has become particularly obvious in the pro-life debate. Having lost the public argument, abortion supporters resort to characterizations of those who oppose abortion as angry, extreme, and violent.

They miss the mark all around. For example, those pro-lifers who carry pictures of aborted fetuses on the street are not being uncivil, even if their methods may not be effective. These pictures only appear uncivil to those who don’t want to be reminded of what it means to be “pro-choice.”

In the case of pro-life leaders, given the substance of their concerns, I am often surprised not by their “incivility” but by their restraint and observance of public decorum. Leaders such as Rev. Frank Pavone, Marjorie Dannenfelser, Doug Johnson, and, among the episcopate, Archbishop Charles Chaput are always calm and compelling witnesses to the truth about the most controversial issue in politics.

No doubt, there is a genuine civility problem in our culture – the evidence is everywhere: the popularity of reality TV, foul rap and pop lyrics, the explosion of Internet porn, and the vulgar texting habits of our teenagers. But these sources of cultural corruption are generated not by political passion but by a deliberate and cool-headed plan to generate profit by appealing to our most sordid impulses.

Maybe that’s the problem Gerson and Wehner should be worrying about.

Duped by Civility

Deal W. Hudson

Published March 7, 2011

Reading Nietzsche taught me one thing: People can talk about values and really be interested only in getting their way. Case in point: All the talk about political “civility” is more about power than good manners. Specifically, it’s about marginalizing everyone who finds it necessary and appropriate to speak passionately on the subject of abortion.

The new civility spreads self-doubt and moral apathy. Those who speak boldly on behalf of life are treated like ill-tempered children who must be sent to their rooms until they learn to behave. It is strange living among adults who are not mature enough to discuss their differences frankly.

Being uncivil has little to do with provoking the hurt feelings of those who avoid serious moral issues. No matter how you talk about defending life, some people will take offense.

Who can blame these “civilizers” for preferring “dialogue?” To them, it is more important to protect their feelings than a human life. More important to “feel the pain” of someone who takes a life than to defend that life from harm.

Many good people have been duped by the call for civility. Nowadays, only politically acceptable evils can be passionately discussed – tobacco, assault weapons, toxic waste. Show your temper on the subject of abortion, euthanasia, or school prayer, and you are accused of being divisive.

The founding fathers were certainly willing to acknowledge natural and revealed law. Politics alone, they realized, did not provide the foundation of a morally sound society. All religiously informed conservatives must take advantage of their broader perspective and call this nation back to decency.

In its root meaning, civility refers to the skill of living in, and governing, a city. What is more important to the skill of governing a city than speaking plainly about the moral evils that threaten it? Instead of speaking out, our leaders are reduced to wooing “soccer moms” (an odious phrase), like naughty boys afraid of being found out. Their big, bad secret is believing in the right to life.

Every major institution in our society encourages delayed adolescence. We are not just dumbed-down, we are literally drowned in a fountain-of-youth culture. Unfortunately our minds have regressed rather than our bodies rejuvenated.

Over the years, I’ve observed the media employ an effective strategy to ensure this childishness. It proceeds in four steps:

The major papers and TV networks begin speculating whether “negative” campaigning will turn off undecided voters, especially women.

Subsequent polling, commissioned by those same media, proves the American public highly vulnerable to suggestion – a large percentage will disapprove of negative campaigning. Newspapers and networks report the polls, thereby reinforcing the original strategy and deepening its message.

Any candidates who are disposed to speak forthrightly on moral matters are put in fear of their political lives.
Thus trained in civility, a confused and apathetic nation allows the media to define the accepted meaning of good and evil. Some of the evils they identify are serious, others are relatively trivial compared with the evils they ignore.

I have been accused of idolizing the Middle Ages. In the past I have, in fact, threatened to flunk any student who uses the phrase “Dark Ages.” The medievals, however, had an unflinching view of evil. “Herod the King” was one of the most popular plays of the Middle Ages. Hardly a more despicable character exists in literature. In watching this play at Christmas, the medievals faced the stark contrast between the innocence of the child Jesus and the ruthlessness of a political leader who protected his power at any cost.

It has always been difficult to talk about Herod at Christmas. The sobs of heartbroken mothers hardly set the mood for Christmas morning. As the most ignored figure in the infancy narratives, Herod the King reminds us that Christ’s birth, not just his death, came with a cost.

By ignoring the slaughter of the innocents, we risk forgetting the lengths that power will go to protect its privilege.

Duped by Civility

Deal W. Hudson
Published March 7, 2011

Reading Nietzsche taught me one thing: People can talk about values and really be interested only in getting their way. Case in point: All the talk about political “civility” is more about power than good manners. Specifically, it’s about marginalizing everyone who finds it necessary and appropriate to speak passionately on the subject of abortion.

The new civility spreads self-doubt and moral apathy. Those who speak boldly on behalf of life are treated like ill-tempered children who must be sent to their rooms until they learn to behave. It is strange living among adults who are not mature enough to discuss their differences frankly.

Being uncivil has little to do with provoking the hurt feelings of those who avoid serious moral issues. No matter how you talk about defending life, some people will take offense.

Who can blame these “civilizers” for preferring “dialogue?” To them, it is more important to protect their feelings than a human life. More important to “feel the pain” of someone who takes a life than to defend that life from harm.

Many good people have been duped by the call for civility. Nowadays, only politically acceptable evils can be passionately discussed – tobacco, assault weapons, toxic waste. Show your temper on the subject of abortion, euthanasia, or school prayer, and you are accused of being divisive.

The founding fathers were certainly willing to acknowledge natural and revealed law. Politics alone, they realized, did not provide the foundation of a morally sound society. All religiously informed conservatives must take advantage of their broader perspective and call this nation back to decency.

In its root meaning, civility refers to the skill of living in, and governing, a city. What is more important to the skill of governing a city than speaking plainly about the moral evils that threaten it? Instead of speaking out, our leaders are reduced to wooing “soccer moms” (an odious phrase), like naughty boys afraid of being found out. Their big, bad secret is believing in the right to life.

Every major institution in our society encourages delayed adolescence. We are not just dumbed-down, we are literally drowned in a fountain-of-youth culture. Unfortunately our minds have regressed rather than our bodies rejuvenated.

Over the years, I’ve observed the media employ an effective strategy to ensure this childishness. It proceeds in four steps:

  1. The major papers and TV networks begin speculating whether “negative” campaigning will turn off undecided voters, especially women.
  2. Subsequent polling, commissioned by those same media, proves the American public highly vulnerable to suggestion – a large percentage will disapprove of negative campaigning.
  3. Newspapers and networks report the polls, thereby reinforcing the original strategy and deepening its message.
  4. Any candidates who are disposed to speak forthrightly on moral matters are put in fear of their political lives.

Thus trained in civility, a confused and apathetic nation allows the media to define the accepted meaning of good and evil. Some of the evils they identify are serious, others are relatively trivial compared with the evils they ignore.

I have been accused of idolizing the Middle Ages. In the past I have, in fact, threatened to flunk any student who uses the phrase “Dark Ages.” The medievals, however, had an unflinching view of evil. “Herod the King” was one of the most popular plays of the Middle Ages. Hardly a more despicable character exists in literature. In watching this play at Christmas, the medievals faced the stark contrast between the innocence of the child Jesus and the ruthlessness of a political leader who protected his power at any cost.

It has always been difficult to talk about Herod at Christmas. The sobs of heartbroken mothers hardly set the mood for Christmas morning. As the most ignored figure in the infancy narratives, Herod the King reminds us that Christ’s birth, not just his death, came with a cost.

By ignoring the slaughter of the innocents, we risk forgetting the lengths that power will go to protect its privilege.