I was mainly offline for a few days. So when I plugged back in last night I realized that we are in the throes of another debate about the decline of “civility” in public life. This is a mealy mouthed word that has no clear meaning beyond social delicacy and the importance of not speaking up too aggressively. As a society the line we should guard is opposition to violence, physical intimidation and menace as tools of civic life. These are wrong in principle, ineffective in practice and tools which the fascistic elements in society will always be able to use more consistently and coherently than those who believe in free society and the rule of law.
When it comes to protests, mean words, civil disobedience, boycotts, public shunning, we may disagree when one or other is wise or called for. But these are entirely legitimate tools of political action, civic action. Many calls for civility are simply calls for unilateral disarmament from those protesting injustices and abuses of power.
I confess I flinch a bit when I see people shouted down in restaurants. That’s mostly characterological — a matter both of individual temperament as well as a sense of what are effective strategies and tactics. But mainly that doesn’t matter: I may think one thing and you think another. That’s fine.
One might further note that it is simply too comical to be lectured about social decorum by a party whose members shouted “You lie” at a President during a State of the Union address and made Donald Trump their party leader. But even that is really beside the point. What does matter is where we draw the lines of what’s legitimate and what’s not. Most of the civility talk isn’t about any real red line, any boundary that is critical to the kind of free society we want to preserve and build. It’s more a wet blanket meant to tsk tsk legitimate protest and legitimate resistance to corrupt government, misrule and injustice.
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