If you will, imagine a sparsely-populated, anarchic region somewhat akin to the early days of the Wild West. Although decent folk live among the rabble, the Rule of Law is hardly respected. People settle disputes not with respect to objective justice or decency but instead resolve most arguments by shooting first.
Now imagine the decent folk of the region, appalled by what they see around them, decide that they will fight the chaos by refraining from participating in it. They choose to “go high” instead of low, using reason and setting positive, dignified examples for their neighbors to demonstrate the behavior and principles upon which they hope to establish a better society. After all, would not participating in the violence around them legitimize the use of arbitrary force? How could they expect anyone to believe that they would prefer a less violent society when they employ violence themselves? Might not they become the very enemies they so loathe if they adopt the outlaws’ tactics and start shooting people themselves?
How successful do you think these decent, moral, reasonable people would be at civilizing their surroundings?
If you see parallels between this society and how leftists often handle foreign policy or criminal justice, you’re correct, for neither rogue states nor individuals change their behavior unless they’re forced to. Negotiation, rehabilitation, offers to join the community, and verbal persuasion have limits.
However, the more pertinent parallel I’m drawing is that of modern political rhetoric and some conservatives’ refusal to adapt to reality accordingly.
Indeed, when I read or hear many of their complaints about Trump, they’re correct in many of their premises. The ability to produce funny memes, quick quips, vacuous catchy slogans, or mock one’s opponents into submission have nothing whatsoever to do with the correctness of one’s views. Societies in which most of us form our opinions based on measured, civil, debates and discussions while soberly weighing the options before us are healthier than those in which the best one-liners win the day. Class is better than crudeness. The president should set positive examples for us and our children.
Nevertheless, as correct as that may be, when we emphasize such idealistic principles while ignoring the principles of reality, power, and human nature, our perspective becomes distorted, our solutions ineffectual, and those who pay no regard whatsoever to any sense of decency, reason, and decorum will prevail over us.
We respect the foundations of civil society, as well we should. However, we often forget that reason, justice, and other ideals can only be enforced when those who adhere to them have more influence and power than those who don’t. In general, people don’t start behaving because they’re rationally convinced they should, have classy examples to follow, or miracles amazingly change their hearts. Instead, they respond to incentives, determining whether they’ll engage in “right” or “wrong” behavior based on whether or not they believe they’ll benefit.
Much to the chagrin of both my more measured conservative allies and myself, when it comes to setting the terms of decency and decorum in political debate, we don’t have that kind of power. Instead, Saturday Night Live plays an instrumental role in destroying the political careers of Republicans from Gerald Ford to Sarah Palin in ways that the reasoned voices of Jonah Goldberg or Charles Krauthammer have never harmed Democrats. Nonsensical quips like “the eighties called” become the only parts of debates that anyone remembers. Conservative views are shouted or beaten out of universities. Mockery, demonization, accusations of mental illness (homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.), snide insinuations, condescension, and virtually every other logical fallacy dominate our political and cultural discourse.
Thus, although the rhetorical environment in which we find ourselves mirrors that of the aforementioned Wild West, many of us act as if there’s a rational judge or sheriff upon whom we can call when our opponents run afoul of the “law” of reasoned discourse. We fail to recognize how judges and sheriffs attained any power out West in the first place — they got better at gunplay than the villains.
Individual morality depends on individual choices, but societal morality depends on a complex web of laws and unwritten norms. The efficacy of societal rules depends on the ability of those who support such rules to enforce them through either legal or societal sanction. If you can’t make people hurt for doing something wrong (even if it’s just their feelings), people are going to keep doing it, especially if they perceive they’ll benefit.
And judging from how easily Romney became a “vulture capitalist” in the minds of most voters, leftists have good reason to believe that continuing with their nonsense will serve them well. Moreover, until Trump the most they had to fear from “going low” was a few Republicans saying variations of “they really shouldn’t say that” for a day or two before moving on to more reasoned discourse. Some attacks worked, some didn’t, but until recently they never suffered effective counterattacks.
Our calls to civil discourse have proven as effective as gun buyback programs or outlawing war, yet many of us act either as if leftist repeated attacks have no effect, or that Moral Appeal #12,342 will be the one that finally does the trick and gets Democrats to address us as fellow human beings and make arguments other than “hate” and “people are going to die.”
Unfortunately, there is no longer enough of a sense of public decorum for “please stop saying that” to instill any sort of shame or fear in the hearts of our opponents whatsoever. They’ve no reasons to stop, so we’ve got to give them some.
And that means instead of winning the fight we should be having, we’ve got to win the fight we’re actually having. That means better memes, insults, and witty quips. It means hounding Maxine Waters and Bernie Sanders for their over-the-top statements like they hounded Palin, letting go only of our offensive only after their reputations have suffered enough for them not to want to do it again.
Some might find it contradictory to foster a return to civilized discourse through insults, but is the alternative any less incoherent? If our current level of discourse is as corrosive as my moralist allies claim, then how can we allow it to continue unabated by our adversaries? Should we not put a stop to it? And how are we going to ever put a stop to it if we refuse to do anything effective to counter it? If our societal norms managed to corrode so drastically as to lead us today’s rhetorical toilet under the classy conservative leadership of the Bushes, Romney, Ryan, and Frist, on what basis can we conclude that more conservative class and nobility will lead to anything other than even more corrosion?
If juvenile rhetoric important enough for us to refrain from whatever its advantages, then it’s important enough for us to ensure that our adversaries put an end to it as well. If it’s not important enough for us to actually stop leftists from doing it and thus accruing advantages from it, then it’s not important enough for us to stop ourselves from doing it to our own detriment.
We’re fortunate enough to live in a society that’s relatively free from violence, but that security developed only because good men sometimes get downright brutal. In order to secure peace both at home and abroad, on our behalf our soldiers and policemen have been willing to engage our enemies on their violent terms. We’re able to follow the rules of law and war because we have so many weapons to enforce codes of decency.
But today, political discourse is anarchy. We’ve no universally enforceable moral code to which we can effectively hold our opponents, and except under the most egregious of violations, no press to cry “you’ve gone too far” when our opponents accuse us of being evil personified. We like to think of ourselves as the righteous forces of morality upholding traditional values of decency when we’re actually just getting beaten to a pulp as we impotently watch those values further degrade.
Much like the leftists who rely exclusively on rehabilitation with dictators and coddle street criminals, all too often politically we’re oblivious to reality and assume that good faith nobility will inspire its reciprocity, forgetting that as negotiation works only from a position of strength, what we see as moral will be interpreted as merely weak. Our eagerness to refrain from impolite rhetoric only fosters its growth.
Our supporters are getting beaten with regularity and our congressional representatives shot as our political opponents continue to call us the racist, evil, violent, misogynist forces of oppression and hate. Yet many of us still wet our beds at the thought of doing something that might actually get them to stop. As our levels of political vitriol continue to increase, we have only ourselves and our misplaced concepts of nobility to blame.Published in