“Stupid, Evil, and/or Disgusting”: Why America Fails at Civil Debate

Angr — self-made; base map is Image:Blank US Map.svg; CC BY-SA 3.0

If we’re to believe the the prevailing political rhetoric of the day, Democrats, liberals and progressives don’t care about freedom or patriotism, and Republicans and conservatives don’t care about human suffering and combating bigotry. At the same time, everybody is concerned about civil debate, and everyone is setting a very good example of civility.

Unless, of course, if you’re on the other side of the political spectrum.

For a country that self-reports itself as committed to civil debate, we demonstrate virtually no knowledge about what it is. I’ve written about the topic for years, and this article is my attempt to start changing that.

First, we’ll take a look at what civil debate is and how to recognize incivility.

Second, we’ll see how education — while helpful — can only go so far in solving the problem.

Lastly, we’ll try to understand why political debates naturally lead to frustration, even if there’s no excuse for them to lead to incivility.

PART ONE: WHAT IS CIVIL DEBATE, ANYWAY?

In sports, we insist on fair play: strive to beat the other team, but don’t do it by cheating.

Civility is basically fair play applied to the political arena. It doesn’t mean compromising, or refraining from criticizing others, or just going along with your opponents and singing “kumbaya”; no, civil debate means working to defeat your opponent, but without resorting to underhanded tactics.

Of course, in the abstract, everybody’s against cheating and in favor of civility. You don’t accomplish much by telling your kids, “be nice,” unless you tell them that hair-pulling and shin-kicking count as failures of niceness. Likewise with civil debate: we need to specify what, exactly, is out of bounds.

The Many Flavors of Name-Calling

There are a lot of behaviors to avoid, but the most prominent is our habit of falsely describing opponents in ways that make them look bad. That is, distorting, caricaturing, or otherwise misrepresenting what they do and believe.

And there’s a rainbow of ways we do this. As I describe and illustrate them below, see if you can recall examples of your own that fit the description.

One way is to set up a “straw man”: a feeble, easy-to-knock-over version of what your opponent believes. For example, in the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama and John McCain each had multi-faceted energy policies. But McCain’s plan was caricatured as nothing but “drill for oil,” while Obama’s was parodied as merely “inflate your tires.” These “policies” were simple enough to argue against, except that nobody was actually advocating them.

Stupid and Evil

We’re usually not content just to misrepresent a policy, though; we often disparage the person holding it, as well. Two of the most popular ways are to describe our opponents as being so mentally deficient that they can’t figure out what’s right, or to demonize them as intentionally choosing what they know to be wrong.

Some folks like to cut to the chase: Paul Krugman once said President George W. Bush was stupid and evil; Sean Penn called him, “a Beelzebub — and a dumb one.” More often, the attributions of mental deficiency and evil intent are a little more subtle, such as: Joe Biden calling Bush “brain-dead”; Mark Levin saying, “Obama has a screw loose, so does his wife”; Sean Hannity declaring that Obama “wants to give Iran a nuclear weapon”; and Rudy Giuliani saying Obama doesn’t love America.

A preferred form of demonizing is to accuse rivals of outright bigotry: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for instance, branded Republicans as “Jim Crow” racists, while Ben Carson charged Obama with anti-Semitism.

The vocabulary varies, but they’re all forms of name-calling.

Sex and Lies

There’s even a combination “stupid and evil” insult (a little more intricate than Krugman’s) for when you catch an adversary in a falsehood or contradiction: say that they willfully reject truth, facts, science, reason, and logic. You can even accuse them of using the “big lie” propaganda technique, which posits that blatant lies are more believable than polished ones, particularly if repeated often enough. (Hitler is often said to have advocated this tactic, but he was actually accusing others — guess who? — of using it.)

Another ploy is to tag your opponent with some horrible political philosophy that they don’t actually believe in. Obama may want more government intervention in the economy than Republicans would like, but he doesn’t believe in a one-party state that abolishes private property (or why would he have returned GM and Chrysler to private ownership?). So, it’s a derisive distortion to call President Obama a Marxist. Likewise, Republicans and conservatives support less welfare than Democrats would like, but they do support some social spending, and private charity on top of that. As such, calling them Social Darwinists is equally a distortion.

Don’t forget sexual insults: think Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut,” Donald Trump retweeting a message about Megyn Kelly being a “bimbo,” and Alan Grayson calling Linda Robertson a “K street whore.”

Disgust and Sub-Humans

And there’s the language of disgust, where we describe another person as something repulsive that should be swept up or flushed away: Mark Levin will often refer to someone he disagrees with as a “puke”; Jerry Doyle once called Melissa Harris-Perry “a steaming turd … Something you get on the bottom of your shoe and you can’t scrape off”; and Matt Bruenig recently referred to activist Neera Tanden as a “scumbag”.

Closely related is language that describes others as subhuman, as when Ted Nugent called Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” or when Grayson called Republicans “Neanderthals,” or when Jerry Brown called climate change deniers “troglodytes.”

This vocabulary is disturbingly similar of the kind of language that was used leading up to massacres like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. That’s not to say that anyone using it is working their way up to mass murder, but what is this language supposed to accomplish, and wouldn’t it be better to just stop using it?

Faulty Reasoning and More

Beyond all this name-calling is a wealth of other rhetorical devices that hamper productive debate. Hasty generalizations, post hoc fallacies, and ad hominem reasoning (which is frequently confused with name-calling, even though they’re not the same), are just a few kinds of faulty reasoning that fail to preserve truth from their premises to their conclusion. And then there are all the evasions — “that’s for the voters to decide,” “he has a right to his opinion,” and “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals” — that politicos use to avoid answering questions.

There’s also a host of political terminology that is ill-defined and easily subject to double standards. For example, politicians often resort to violent rhetoric — “hit them,” “fight back,” “target the enemy” — which is usually meant metaphorically. But, of course, the tendency is to view one’s own use of violent rhetoric as poetic, while the use of it by opponents is taken as anti-democratic incitement to riot.

Those double standards are a big deal. Education won’t fix incivility so long as people are self-serving and hypocritical in their speech. And, too often, they are.

PART TWO: SELECTIVE HEARING, SELECTIVE OUTRAGE

It was February of 2015 when State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf said of Islamic State (aka ISIS): “We’re killing a lot of them and we’re going to keep killing more of them. … But we cannot win this war [merely] by killing them. … We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, [including the] lack of opportunity for jobs”.

Harf was met with a hail of criticism from Republicans and conservatives. “Imagine if we had a commander-in-chief that understood that the way to defeat ISIS is not to find them a job,” said Marco Rubio. Glenn Beck described Obama’s ISIS strategy as, “We’re gonna hug it out. We’re gonna give you a job.” And Rush Limbaugh summed it up as, “all we need to do to defeat ISIS is get them jobs.”

Even as they played the clip of Harf saying, “we’re killing a lot of them, and we’re going to keep killing more of them,” many of these critics caricatured her and the Obama administration for adopting a pacifistic, jobs-only strategy. They ignored the clearly stated military component, openly distorting what she said in a way that made her and the administration look naive and ridiculous.

“100 Years of War”

A similar situation occurred in the 2008 presidential campaign, when John McCain said that he wouldn’t mind stationing U.S. troops in Iraq for a hundred years, “as long as Americans are not being injured, or harmed, or wounded or killed”; that is, so long as the deployment were similar to the peacetime presence the U.S. has had for decades in places like Japan and South Korea.

Liberals and Democrats pounced: Howard Dean called McCain’s strategy “a war without end”; Hillary Clinton said McCain might “keep this war going for 100 years”; and Barack Obama accused McCain of being “willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq.” They ignored what McCain actually said and portrayed him as a war-monger.

So relentless was the misrepresentation that, when NBC’s Meredith Vieira challenged Obama on it, he countered that people should “pull up the quotes on Youtube” to see for themselves what McCain had said. It was a bizarre defense, given that the video proved that Obama, Clinton, and Dean were wrong and that McCain’s position had been blatantly falsified.

Character Counts

In other words, the problem is bigger than just a lack of decorum and conceptual clarity in our political rhetoric; there’s the problem of — to be blunt — poor character. Whether from malice or carelessness, we frequently misstate what our opponents did or didn’t say. And we do so in a way that makes them look stupid, evil, disgusting, or otherwise unfit for duty. By commission or omission, it amounts to dishonesty.

A multi-level verbal atrocity often evolves from this name-calling. It’s bad enough when someone calls us names, but it’s even worse when they — say, like President Obama — insist they “have not contributed” to the problem of incivility. And it only gets more infuriating when the same person goes on to give a lecture about the need to “change the tone” of political discourse (as President George W. Bush did).

Intended or not, these extra layers of antagonism prod the other side to lash out with, well, more name-calling. It’s the proverbial cycle of verbal violence. (Sometimes clichés are apt.)

And it accomplishes nothing. Think about it, when was the last time that someone disparaged your political views and it suddenly caused you to switch to their way of thinking? More likely it made you their enemy, and a durable one at that.

Really, what other result would anyone expect to get?

Breaking the “Who’s Worse?” Habit

You’ve noticed I’ve been diligent about providing examples of incivility from both sides of the aisle. That’s because the inclination to cherry-pick — to highlight the misbehavior of your opponents, while overlooking the same flaws on your own side — runs deep. And it shows up in the insistence that it’s somehow a “false equivalence” to say that both sides are guilty of incivility, that it’s “obvious” one side does it more than the other.

One of the things I’ve learned while running The Civil Debate Page is that there is far more name-calling and distortion in American politics than any one person can keep track of. Which side does it more? I honestly don’t know.

For anyone who believes they do know, the burden is on them to prove it. This means more than offering a few anecdotes. It means coming up with an unbiased set of criteria about what counts as incivility, applying it even-handedly to equally representative groups over an equal period of time, and covering every last public utterance they make. No cherry-picking. Until you’ve done that, you have no real evidence to counter the people who say the opposite — that you’re wrong, the other side is the guilty one — do you?

The “false equivalence” complaint further exposes the real problem: when we talk about civil debate, people fixate on, “Which side is worse?” instead of, “How do we make ourselves better?” Civility is seen as yet another political battlefield where warriors can gain an advantage over the other side, rather than as a virtue rooted in dignity and respect that is an end in and of itself.

That’s how engrained the problem is, and it’s largely because we don’t like to lose.

PART THREE: MISGUIDED PASSION

Politics involves questions about how people deserve to be treated, and so it’s sensible for us to be passionate about it.

But there are such things as crimes of passion. In fact, intense emotions should prompt us to be careful, so that we don’t wind up doing something impulsively destructive.

Yet we regularly do just that. We care about abortion, taxes, spending, terrorism, unemployment, etc., and we’re unable to comprehend how anyone could fail to support the same courses of action as we do. So we try to defeat the opposition by impugning, cherry-picking, evading, and distorting.

Out of frustration, we cheat.

The Usual Suspects

Each side has certain preferred slurs. Republicans and conservatives say that liberals, progressives and Democrats don’t care about freedom and liberty, that they don’t love America and don’t think people should have to work to earn a living. Meanwhile, liberals, progressives and Democrats say Republicans and conservatives are devoid of empathy, don’t care about human suffering, and are racist war-mongers.

In each case, their defense is, “How else are we supposed to describe people who are so obviously wrong about important issues?”

This is maybe the most harmful (and self-serving) distortion of all. The answer two a given political controversy is often far from obvious, because, most of the time, they’re enormously baffling on two fronts.

An Unpredictable World

The first is that they concern human behavior. Picking the right policy on taxes, crime, foreign policy, military strategy and so forth means predicting how people are going to behave, which is challenging to say the least. Social sciences — e.g., economics and criminology — are on more precarious footing than hard sciences — physics, chemistry, and biology — because it’s much easier to run a slew of rigorous experiments (with the necessary control groups) on molecules than on people.

The result is that we have an enormous amount of information about how the material world behaves, and can make very precise predictions about things like radiation, chemical compounds, and bodies in motion. With people, not so much. Just try predicting a basketball game, an election, the stock market, or a friend’s response to a birthday gift as opposed to the behavior of your microwave oven.

Moral Conflict

And there’s a second front that confounds us. Even when the consequences of our actions are predictable, we still run into cases where we have to choose between different morally good outcomes. Should I, personally, kill one innocent person if it stops someone else from killing five innocent people? What’s more important, honesty or compassion? Is it better to aid the needy or to reward the virtuous?

Unpredictable consequences and moral dilemmas are woven into most every political controversy out there. It’s no wonder that we frequently disagree, and even switch places from issue to issue.

Consider the question of whether we sometimes help people to the point of undermining their ability to take care of themselves: when it comes to unemployment assistance, Republicans tend to say the U.S. government is doing too much, Democrats that it’s not doing enough. But when it comes to aiding Afghanistan or Iraq, though, their positions have often been reversed.

This isn’t to say we never solve problems and make progress, we do. But the answers to political controversies are often no more obvious than the answers to the everyday moral questions we face, like who we should pick as friends, what job we should take, and whether and how to help out someone who needs money.

Legitimate empirical and moral issues lie at the heart of politics. But, instead of delving deeper into these controversies — trying to prove experimentally which policies yield what results, or argue conceptually for which moral values should take precedence — we take the easy way out. We cast our opponents as Nazis or some other unmentionable, confident that we’ll seem preferable by comparison.

And so, instead of debate and civic participation that enlightens us — instead of passion that prompts us to behavior that’s dignified and respectful — we wind up with a political environment that makes us worse as people. We’re angry, resentful, vengeful, and more than a bit paranoid.

That’s the biggest failure of our political culture: that it doesn’t create good people.

CONCLUSION

The rhetoric of Donald Trump has heightened people’s awareness of the need for civil discourse, but a couple things are worth noting.

First, Trump is really nothing new when it comes to incivility. He’s doing things — distorting, demonizing, flip-flopping — that have been a staple in politics for ages; he’s likely just doing them more frequently. He resorts to vulgar name-calling more often than most politicians, but even if he stopped that altogether, there’d still be plenty of non-vulgar name-calling coming from all quarters.

Trump is different from the current crop of politicians more in degree than in kind.

Second — and building on the above point — Trump is a perfect example of the hypocrisy about civil debate. On the one hand, he rejects any call to be “politically correct” or “PC”; he should be able to talk about what he wants, how he wants. If anyone gets offended, that’s their problem. But, at the same time, he repeatedly complains about being treated “unfairly” by this or that opponent or media entity. That is, he demands that nobody say anything about him that’s false and derisive.

It’s the typical political double-standard: you have to be careful what you say about me; meanwhile, I get to say whatever I want about you, and if you have a problem with it, suck it up. Civility for you, “anything goes” for me.

Power to the People

With or without the likes of Donald Trump, we need to figure out how to do better.

Usually, the proposed remedies for incivility fall along the lines of campaign finance reform, congressional redistricting, or a change in the rules on media ownership. Whatever merits these policies might have, they continue the habit of pushing the blame on to someone else.

Instead, the remedy involves us improving our own behavior, which is good news, because it means the solutions are close to home.

Now, politicos are in the grip of the idea that it’s really the other side that needs rehabilitation: Bill Clinton says Republicans “delegitimize the people they don’t like”; former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels insists, “our opponents are better at nastiness than we will ever be”; and Paul Krugman declares, “Republicans are very good at demonizing their opponents as individuals.” Rush Limbaugh even qualified his apology for insulting Sandra Fluke by saying, “In fighting [the left] … I became like them.”

A Lack of Role Models

So, we don’t have any good national role models whose behavior we can emulate. We don’t have the benefit of a recognized paragon of virtue who will call out people for name-calling even if it involves criticizing someone on their own team, or even if it means criticizing themselves.

(If it’s any consolation, there seems to be some level on which politicians themselves don’t really buy into their own invective. Over the past few presidential election cycles, look at all the horrible things candidates have said about one another in the primaries, only to eventually reconcile and line up behind the nominee.)

It’s OK, though, if we don’t have national role models. We can just make ourselves virtuous, and then have our leaders follow.

A Grassroots Effort

If we want to improve our political discourse, we can’t just advocate civility in the abstract. We have to think carefully about what counts as fair and unfair rhetoric, applying abstract rules to a variety of concrete situations.

More, we have to listen when somebody complains that they’re being caricatured. If we don’t acknowledge when others are victims of name-calling, they’re not going to take us seriously when we demand they not resort to name-calling against others.

When someone insults us, we have to resist the temptation to retaliate in kind. We have to realize that the people doing the maligning are often lashing out after being maligned.

And, as always, we have to treat people with the dignity and respect with which we would like to be treated.

How Good People Disagree

Good people can try to answer moral questions without disparaging those who suggest a different answer. Our rhetorical excesses seldom solve problems, they mostly create enemies. In fact, they routinely claim collateral damage, inaugurating into enmity young people who are entering the political arena for the first time. It’s utterly needless.

Our involvement in politics should make us better people. It shouldn’t serve as a venue for us to exude our worst. There will be times, like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, when we’ll need each other. Even as we disagree, the political arena should be a place that prepares for the uncertain future, that creates trust and respect between us, the contenders, in the same way that trust and respect often arise among competitors in sports.

For that to happen, we need to clean up our character. And the place to start is with our speech.