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In the wake of the Kavanaugh/Ford debacle, the topic of civility has once again been brought to the fore. Inevitably, in the aftermath of progressive rudeness or violence, there is a call among conservatives for a tit-for-tat response, for an embrace of the unsavory techniques of the progressive opposition, usually accompanied by an assertion that we’re in a war and we’re losing because we refuse to play by the enemy’s rules.
I’m sympathetic to this perspective: it’s extraordinarily frustrating to face an opposition that seems devoid of principle and honor and that flouts the most basic constraints of law and decency. It’s natural to want to punch back, and it’s understandable that the constraints of civility so common among conservatives would leave some feeling at a disadvantage.
“Civility” really means an adherence to norms of behavior, to established rules of speech and conduct. Civility tends to come naturally to conservatives because preserving established rules is at the heart of what “conservative” means. In contrast, progressives tend to be dismissive of rules when those rules are seen as obstructions to achieving a desired end.
Incivility is a fractal quality of modern progressivism. That is, it appears at every level, in matters big and small. We see it in the vulgarity of their language, the boorishness of their entertainers and celebrities, the dishonesty of their politics, the viciousness of their tactics of personal destruction, their rejection of norms of free discourse, their growing displays of public rudeness and intimidation, and, increasingly, their violent opposition to dissent. The left has made the political landscape an ugly and dangerous place.
I’ve written before about civility, and about my belief that conservatives should continue to embrace it. I’m writing now to express a more nuanced view on the subject, a kind of compromise, one that recognizes that there are two kinds of civility used – or violated – by progressives, and that whether or not conservatives should respect civility depends on which kind of civility is being discussed.
Progressives routinely violate broadly accepted rules of civil behavior. They’re profane, vulgar, threatening, dishonest, and destructive. They break laws, corrupt government institutions, and resort to violence to suppress dissent.
These are all behaviors that Americans by and large reject. We are a civil people who decry such gross incivility when it’s brought to our attention. Progressives know this: it is precisely for this reason that the mainstream media avoid reporting progressive violence and extremism, while highlighting the comparatively rare instances of conservative misbehavior.
The violent riots, anti-free speech protests, and occasional shootings are not intended to sway the public. These angry outbursts of self-righteous and often desperate people giving vent to their frustration and hatred don’t convince anyone of the rightness of the progressive position.
Conservatives can and should use these events to their advantage, not by emulating them but by publicizing them widely, both to galvanize fellow conservatives and to show to the politically ambivalent middle that there is a real difference between conservatives and progressives – and that it is the conservative who represents the broadly shared values of civility and comity most of us still hold in common.
Critically, conservatives can do this only if they avoid descending into the depths of incivility themselves. Our distaste for hypocrisy is ancient and deep, and the value of highlighting progressive ugliness vanishes if a credible case can be made that conservatives are just as bad. We aren’t, and we should defend the high ground.
Rather than embracing progressive incivility, we should call attention to it. Think of it as a kind of civic jujitsu, leveraging the incivility of our enemies against them without ourselves resorting to deplorable behavior.
The progressives’ violation of civility is not terribly consequential and can be used against them. Far more significant is the left’s use of false civility to constrain conservatives and shape public opinion. While I strongly encourage conservatives to adhere to standards of true civility, I think it is essential that conservatives reject the false standards of civility progressives attempt to impose. This is a kind of “incivility” that I embrace and encourage.
By false civility, I mean the burgeoning rules of political correctness that seek to define what decent people can think and say. These are the new standards the left tries to impose, often successfully, through its domination of popular media and respected opinion-shaping institutions. By defining which views are considered socially acceptable, the left uses the natural conservative tendency toward civility against us in a way that eventually, if left unchallenged, does change public opinion.
Pushing back against even false standards of civility is uncomfortable for many of us, so deep is the conservative desire to avoid causing offense. But it’s necessary if we are to check progressive efforts to redefine normal in abnormal ways. Fortunately, the left embraces a lot of ideas that are obviously nonsensical, and that makes it easier to express criticism of them even when such criticism has been rendered socially questionable.
The myth of male/female equivalence, the nonsense of the gender-diversity movement, the fiction of “racist America,” the hypocrisy of exploding identity politics, the ignorant celebration of socialism and rejection of the miraculous achievements of free market capitalism, the anti-science of catastrophic global warming, the left’s increasingly blatant anti-Americanism – all of these are examples of the new etiquette of false civility, and all should be challenged by conservatives.
I’ve heard the arguments against speaking out. Some people fear they’ll lose their jobs, others that their class grades will suffer. Many worry about being branded cranks and bigots. Fair enough: not everyone is free to push back as blatantly or as strenuously as, say, a single, thick-skinned, middle-aged, self-employed curmudgeon like myself.
But to those who argue that conservatives should flirt with the true incivility of the left, and should consider violating real norms of decency, honesty, and legality, I say this: it’s more valuable, less destructive, easier, and simply better to intelligently violate the false civility progressives are trying to impose on us than it is to reject what most conservatives and most Americans respect and what, ultimately, we are trying to preserve and restore.