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The Problem with the Civility Movement

Civility is a virtue in individuals, but the political movement is a distraction from the issues of the day. The civility movement has three major problems:

1. It brings out the worst in people.

It seems contradictory that efforts to get people to behave better would make our political climate more caustic. However, no civility summit begins with a confessional moment where the panelists own up to their own misdoings. It’s always pointing a self-righteous finger at others.

The aftermath of the Rally to Restore Sanity put on by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is instructive as to how these efforts work, even when lavished with media attention.

Civility guru Stewart defends the tone of his own show by ignoring surveys that indicate people take his show seriously. Stewart further states that “coarseness” in our political environment is not a problem, only overwrought comparisons of political opponents to Nazis, Communists, etc. This is intended to let himself off the hook for his profanity-filled personal attacks.

At Stewart’s big rally, he called out both MSNBC and Fox for what he believes to be overheated rhetoric. Rachel Maddow took issue with Stewart’s rally for alleging equivalence between Fox News and MSNBC. Ditto for Keith Olbermann.

Did the Rally to Restore Sanity make us behave better? Did it create a more positive tone in our political discourse? Or did it merely re-enforce a belief among the participants and the left that the tone of American politics is somebody else’s fault?

2. The civility movement  is political correctness by another name.

Sarah Palin’s use of targets for congressional seats has become controversial in the aftermath of the Tucson rampage. CNN issued an “apology” for the use of a crosshairs analogy. Both of these incidents show the posturing over civility is nothing more than political correctness in disguise.

Like political correctness, the civility movement seeks to protect us by limiting what we can say in polite society. They seek to be the umpires who can declare what rhetoric is overwrought, dangerous, and unacceptable, and what rhetoric is in bounds.

Most of the people trying to play this rhetoric-control game are on the left, so we end up with a series of double standards in the ever-changing political strike zone. According to them, it is wrong for Sarah Palin to say that ObamaCare will lead to rationing and the government deciding who will live and who will die. Yet it is fine for Democrats to tell senior citizens the Republicans want to take away their Social Security. In reality, Democrats are dodging legitimate concerns that Obamacare will require rationing while every Social Security reform proposal begins with meeting obligations to current recipients.

Likewise, Democrats tell us it is unacceptable for pro-life activists to assert that abortion is murder. But it is acceptable for pro-abortionists to falsely claim pro-life activists want to have women dying as a result of illegal abortions.

The overarching goal of this effort is to make it difficult, if not impossible, to make a passionate conservative argument on any issue.

3) The civility movement ignores history.

Has civility reached a crisis in American politics as compared to past eras? Reason.TV released a video showing what a TV campaign ad in 1800 would have been like based on actual rhetoric from that year’s campaign. The rhetoric was far nastier than anything seen in modern campaigns. Supporters of two signers of the Declaration of Independence spent the 1800 campaign attacking the patriotism and character of their opponents and warning of dire consequences should the other side win.

Nor are martial analogies new to American politics. Both President Obama and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) have hailed Theodore Roosevelt. But Roosevelt declared during the 1912 campaign: “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” Roosevelt also wrote a book excoriating World War I opponents, birth control advocates, and other political opponents as The Foes of Our Own Household.

The use of battle language in politics is natural. The issues we debate on cable news and the Internet are the things over which people once shot at each other. The issues have not become less serious, but our American system demands we solve these problems peaceably through lawful democratic processes.

Does political incivility threaten to topple the republic? No. For more than 225 years, America has survived it. America’s peace with itself for most of its history has not been the result of people always speaking nicely in the political sphere, but rather it is the result of them feeling they could speak out on issues of great importance.

If you want to make our politics more civil, change the behavior of the one person you have a right to change: yourself. Self-righteous and hypocritical attacks on the free speech rights of others will not make our country or our politics better.