In Defense of Decency

In Defense of Decency

Robert McLeod
Robert McLeod
8 min read

Contemporary political discourse seems to be largely consumed, if not deranged, by our endless culture war. Many of us recoil at the daily skirmishes, even as we hunt for our next fix of outrage. Through our dismay, we might yearn for a distant future in which disagreements are more civilized and decent people of all stripes can work together to solve society’s challenges. It’s tempting to imagine that only zealots could disagree with such anodyne ideals. And indeed, nearly 80 percent of Americans are disturbed by the lack of civility in politics.

But a glance at Twitter paints a more dispiriting picture. Within this bizarre simulacrum of society, hostility towards high-minded ideals like civility is not limited to the fringe—at least not the fringe as we tend to conceive of it. Instead, for some mainstream journalists and activists, a politician’s history of civility with adversaries can amount to a stain on his record.

This mindset seems to be informed by a fear that engaging the “enemy” with decency betrays weakness or disloyalty to the cause. Such failures are therefore tantamount to empowering oppression, socialism, the alt-right, Islamists, or whatever bogeyman consumes the minds of the faithful. In the hope of warding off this kind of corruption, some on the Left have created a strawman known as “civility politics,” or “the politics of civility.” Though rarely defined, it is often deployed to evoke images of civil rights activists being chastised for rudeness. As a consequence, a principled opposition to violence and dehumanization can be conflated with a demand for deferential politeness.

A Daily Show clip, modestly titled “Trevor Noah EVISCERATES the civility argument” exemplifies this maneuver. “You know what really gets me?” he asks. “When these people come up to me and say, ‘But Trevor, why can’t we be polite? Why can’t we fight hate with love, just like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela?’ Never forget, in their time, people were not exactly happy with how they protested… The British called Gandhi an ‘agitator,’ countries around the world called Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist.’”

A surface reading of this argument implies that we should discard the worldview of Gandhi and Mandela because their opponents despised them. This is circular, of course: a strategy for combating oppression can’t be refuted by the mere fact that oppression exists. The takeaway seems to be that moral principles should be abandoned if the other side is sufficiently wicked.

Of course, not all criticisms of civility are incoherent. As ZZ Packer argues in the New York Times, there are two ways in which to use and understand “civility.” The first can be thought of as “civility of manners,” which relates to “politeness, courtesy, [and] consideration.” While these niceties have value, Packer correctly argues that latching onto politeness above all else is dangerous. Doing so, she argues, creates a trap in which we risk, “conforming to unjust social arrangements” in deference to niceness.

It’s unsurprising that activists share this concern. A sanctimonious lecture about manners sounds insulting when others are suffering injustices. But this is to miss a deeper and more fundamental conception of the term, which Packer refers to as the “civility of morals.” The civility of morals is less about adhering to social conventions than to certain ideals, rooted in social contract theory, which ask us to “restrain certain impulses in exchange for peace.”

These two conceptions of civility are often in tension. While the civility of manners seeks to neutralize conflict, the civility of morals “obligates us to interrogate what it means to keep the peace, and at what cost. It requires us to be vigilant, finding ways to keep our civic commitments even when our opponents abandon them, refuse to play fair and act in bad faith.” These principles are antithetical to the moral flexibility espoused by many ideologues.

Tribalism is likely the greatest obstacle to such a civility of morals. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue in The Coddling of the American Mind, thousands of years of evolution have encouraged our minds to engage in “dichotomous, us-versus-them thinking.” Ideological frameworks that posit binary moral divides seem especially prone to “hyperactivating our ancient tribal tendencies.” These tribal attitudes often produce what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls a “pathological dualism” where “humanity itself [is] radically…divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.”

This dualistic lens can be seen in dehumanizing descriptions of immigrants or Muslims from the far-Right. But dehumanizing rhetoric is also found in far-Left depictions of the cosmic battle between oppressor and oppressed. Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour expressed this plainly during a discussion about Palestine: “If you’re actually trying to humanize the oppressor, then that’s a problem, sisters and brothers.” Opponents in this light are not merely wrongheaded or ignorant, but irredeemable. They therefore forfeit their humanity—there can be no second chances. The tendency in social justice discourse to lump people into broad categories makes this all the more disturbing. One is left to wonder who exactly qualifies as an “oppressor” and who gets to decide.

This mindset also allows us to overlook the worst behavior of our own team. Moral analysis in this realm often begins and ends with a single question: who are the actors involved? It is no wonder, then, that Sarsour falls silent in response to Louis Farrakhan’s serial displays of antisemitism. The same can be said of the journalists equivocating over Antifa’s assault of Andy Ngo. While antisemitism or street violence may not be our cup of tea, they seem to say, empathy and outrage must be reserved for our allies, not for those they victimize. Actions that might otherwise be condemned are therefore excused because they are directed at an authorized target.

Vox journalist Matthew Yglesias’s response to an episode involving Tucker Carlson’s wife, Susie, offers another instructive case study. While some have cast doubt on the events as Carlson described them, this was subsequent to Yglesias’s commentary. Susie Carlson, or so the story goes, barricaded herself in a room after a group of aggressive protestors began hammering on her front door. In response, Yglesias confessed that he “honestly cannot empathize with Tucker Carlson’s wife at all—I agree that protesting at her house was tactically unwise and shouldn’t be done—but I am utterly unable to identify with her plight on any level.” The “idea behind terrorizing his family, like it or not as a strategy,” he hypothesized, “is to make them feel some fear that the victims of MAGA-inspired violence feel thanks to the non-strop racial incitement coming from Tucker, Trump, etc.” He went on: “I agree that this is probably not tactically sound, but if your instinct is to empathize with the fear of the Carlson family rather than with the fear of his victims then you should take a moment to reflect on why that is.”

Yglesias’s analysis implies that compassion is zero-sum; there is no suggestion that empathizing with both Susie Carlson and her husband’s “victims” is even possible. Even if we grant that Carlson’s rhetoric has contributed to the plight of minorities, the moral calculus remains unchanged. Tucker Carlson’s wife and children simply do not deserve to experience such an invasive level of harassment, no matter how objectionable Tucker’s views may be. For Yglesias, these very objections would seem to be a cause for reasonable suspicion, and those who raise them should “reflect” on their (presumably ignoble) motives for doing so. But doesn’t it seem strange that the burden of justification should first fall on those advocating for decency rather than cruelty?

Treating our political adversaries humanely can feel like a tall order. But we should notice how far our empathy can travel in other contexts. Many of us of a leftward persuasion call for reforms to our criminal justice system, even for violent criminals. Some of us even lose sleep over the treatment of terrorists. We consider ourselves more moral for doing so. But would we entertain a claim that our calls for humane incarceration and less retributive sentencing are proof that we lack compassion for crime victims? Not for a second.

We need not surrender to such doublethink. By appealing to ideals that expand our moral sphere to be more inclusive, we can fight for a better world and maintain a principled commitment to decency. Doing so requires an explicit repudiation of the sort of skin-deep, tribal dualism so familiar to our politics today. As Martin Luther King explained, the struggle is not “between people at all…resistance is not aimed against oppressors, but oppression. Under its banner consciences, not racial groups, are enlisted.”

It’s only fair to acknowledge that King is often cherry-picked like scripture. Progressives point to his criticism of white moderates in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” while those on the Right note his wariness toward Black Power. Yet King’s underlying philosophy was not a maze of contradictions; its essence was a sort of universal humanism.

Whether nonviolent resistance was sufficient to achieve all of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement has long been debated. There are no shortage of graves, King’s among them, to remind us that some racists were impervious to change. Clearly, an ideology of absolute pacifism can be morally bankrupt when it confronts absolute evil. As Orwell pointed out, such pacifism is predicated on a belief that evil “will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does?”

Lectures about our shared humanity are no defense against the gestapo or gangs of Klansmen. But not every unfairness or wrong justifies violence. Living in a pluralistic society exposes us to numerous ideological perspectives, some of which will inevitably be an affront to our own. This is the price of living in a free society. It’s sometimes a high toll, but it’s surely less expensive than the alternative. Does this mean that we have to lay down and “take it”? It does not. Protest, expose wrongdoing, and criticize society’s failures. None of this requires us to dehumanize the unenlightened or be a bystander to cruelty.

Adopting common humanity politics is not just moral, it’s also effective. Although some are beyond the reach of persuasion, victory often depends on reaching a larger base of people—some conflicted, some fearful, some apathetic. Rather than regard all white people as the enemy, for example, King inspired this larger group to open their eyes to the suffering of their fellow citizens, and challenged them to do something about it. America did not heed the call overnight—and one can argue that it has yet to fully answer it—but substantial progress was nevertheless made.

Isn’t achieving progress the name of the game? Unfortunately, too few progressive activists today appear to be interested in changing minds. This is evident in their missionary efforts, where far more energy is spent trying to silence problematic ideas than actually engaging anyone. But stifling or even stigmatizing beliefs doesn’t vanquish them. Anyone blindsided by Brexit or Trump should have learned that people’s true beliefs have a way of revealing themselves at the ballot box. It’s simply not enough for activists to discourage and scold inappropriate behavior as if they staff society’s HR Department. To win, the Left needs to win minds.

Such work is not easy. But, as a pair of documentaries by Deeyah Khan and Daryl Davis show, it is possible. White Right: Meeting the Enemy and An Accidental Courtesy reveal some racists to be as cynical and heartless as expected. But these films also testify to the transcendent power of our common humanity. As we spend time with the racists in both films, the mask usually slips to reveal a familiar tragedy—many are unskilled, depressed, and afraid of a changing world. None of this excuses their espousal of a wicked ideology, but it helps us understand why people gravitate towards such movements, and how skilled recruiters are able to exploit them.

We don’t have to wax philosophical about free will to recognize that no human is fully autonomous. None of us has complete control over the experiences and genes that made us, our personality, our worldview, or our insecurities. This is true for everyone from a Doctors Without Borders volunteer to the ignoramus at the local pub. None of which means we shouldn’t incarcerate criminals, or criticize bad ideas and those who espouse them. But the recognition that we are shaped by forces beyond our control can dissolve genuine hatred, leaving a void that can be replaced with something more constructive.

Hatred may seduce us with feelings of righteousness, but it changes little for the better. Morality should certainly shape our political views, but our politics must never shape our morality. Adopting such an inversion, we may find ourselves defending the unconscionable.