Thursday, May 26, 2005

What is Brian Leiter Thinking?

This is simply awful:
As we have remarked previously, civility is the greatest gift one can bestow on the creationist conmen, the right-wing liars, and the religious bigots--not to mention the hordes of ignorant blowhards in the blogosphere. To treat their positions with civility is to already legitimate them. The consequence of doing so is now available for all the world to see: the intellectually and morally depraved state of public culture in America today.

Civility in no way, shape, or form "legitimizes" its "target," so to speak. They simply aren't related concepts. When I sit quietly through a lecture I disagree with, I am not signaling my agreement or endorsement with the speaker. Rather, I am voluntarily agreeing to abide by certain norms which make discourse possible.

The Zmag article that spawned Leiter's endorsement of shouting matches is a perfect example of awful argumentation. Has the author never heard of a non-sequitur?
I would argue that there is an "excess of civility" today in North America....

-Why is it unheard of for someone to call a politician or corporate CEO a liar? Why do we instead hear terms such as "they are not telling the whole story", "he needs to come clean" or "he is misrepresenting the facts"?

-Why are we not flooded with images in our mainstream media of Iraqi and Afghani children killed by coalition troops, or for that matter dead or injured U.S. soldiers?

-Why have so many been turned off by the confrontational work of the rather dishevelled-looking Michael Moore? Has he not been seen lately making his rounds on late night television clean-shaven in a suit and tie?

-Why does an increasing cynicism of the U.S. intervention in Iraq not translate into wholesale changes in staff or policy?

Why are all these grouped under the heading of civility? With the exception of the first example, none of the issues excerpted by Leiter (and there are a few more) have anything to do with civility. They instead are related to what topics are considered fair game for debate--an area which does intersect, but still a very distinct topic. I don't think the reason that we don't look at Michael Moore is because its deemed impolite, I think its because he is an awful writer. Cynicism in Iraq? That is not a "civility" issue either. There might be a decent point in here--that more issues should be vigorously debated by the American polity. But if that's what is being asserted, then it was badly mistagged.

I'll grant that there is a place in politics for hyperbole, sarcasm, and other forms of communication in that genre. Hey, I've even been known to engage in them myself. But to indict the entire concept of civility strikes me as wildly off-base. Indeed, one of the criticisms the left (often correctly) makes of the rabid right is that they simply are shouting, with no effort at reasoned argumentation or respect for those with opposing viewpoints. This is one case where we should not come to a consensus with them.

One of the things I learned as a debater is that it is possible to have heated, passionate disagreements with people--yet remain respectful. Is there an outward limit? Yes, we don't need to respectfully engage Hitler. But the line has to be drawn very carefully--it shouldn't be used on a lark or for anyone who disagrees with us. Political discourse cannot simply become a shouting match, and Professor Leiter is wrong for suggesting that we chuck civility out the window.

2 comments:

N.S.T said...

"As we have remarked previously, civility is the greatest gift one can bestow on the creationist conmen, the right-wing liars, and the religious bigots--not to mention the hordes of ignorant blowhards in the blogosphere. To treat their positions with civility is to already legitimate them."

The truly ignorant man is he who refuses to allow any other to illuminate the flaws in his own ideas, or to even entertain the possibility that such flaws exist. By maintaining a healthy level of civility in political discourse, one demonstrates his willingness to view things from the other side of the fence, and, thus, his own intelligence.

alex said...

The most puzzling part of your post, to me, is that at the end you do a complete turnaround:

"Yes, we don't need to respectfully engage Hitler. But the line has to be drawn very carefully-"

Leiter's line may be different from yours, but can you really say its not drawn carefully? Nonwithstanding the zmag article, which is indeed awful, Leiter has provided ample careful justification.