It’s part of the human condition that anger builds on itself and leads, sometimes, to violence. But so much of the public dialog at the moment returns to this concept of ‘civility’. You’ve got pro- and anti-civility folks. You’ve got critiques of ‘civility’ as the wrapper into which we package hierarchy and deference. Characterologically, for better or worse, I tend to be pro-civility. I don’t really like seeing people accosted or shouted at in restaurants. But I think we can settle on a simpler point. Civility has relatively little to do with political violence or the kind of totalizing and dehumanizing political rhetoric and action that spawns it.
Today on Twitter Jon Meacham wrote this: “The attempted assassinations today clearly amount to a terrorist attack on America. A solemn moment that should remind the politically divisive that decency is an essential element of civilization.”
Decency, being nice, presuming all speech and political actions are based on good faith rather than ill will – these are all fine enough things if you can manage them. But those mores can be difficult to sustain when society is attempting to litigate fundamental disagreements which are difficult and maybe impossible to solve through compromise.
The real line is the one President Trump crosses almost daily: ‘jokes’ about state violence against political enemies, apocalyptic or dehumanizing rhetoric like calling the press the “enemy of the people” which invites violence, the kinds of casual slanders we hear about Jewish billionaires or the Democratic party organizing hordes of immigrants to storm the country’s borders. These are the kinds of actions that start to make civic life, democratic life, difficult and then impossible.
I don’t deny that a certain level of polarization, coarseness in the way we talk to each other or reflexive presumptions of bad faith can lead us toward Trumpian type rhetoric. But that’s like a gateway drug argument. Sure, it happens with some people. But mostly not. The simple truth is that we can live with our politics being raucous, aggressive and even mean. What kills civic life is not only violence but violent incitement, rhetoric of dehumanization and the politics of aggression and hate that is still largely the exclusive possession of the political right in the United States today.