Wednesday, June 29, 2005

On Civility (Part 1?)

Brian Leiter just noticed my critique of his call to limit civility in public debates. Here was the offending quote:
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.

In response, I argued that civility was an important part of our civic discourse and should not be tossed away so lightly. I also conceded that there was an outer limit to this position--Hitler, for example, and Leiter pounced:
What always strikes me in debates about "tone" and "civility" is that the critics, without fail, will abandon civility and adopt a harsh tone in the presence of the views that they deem "beyond the pale." Invariably, it turns out that they simply draw the line somewhere else (a good example is here--see the last paragraph, and the second comment), and that what really galls them is not the fact of my harshness and dismissiveness--they are equally capable of that when it comes to, e.g., Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader or me--but rather that it is directed at the views they've been taught to take seriously, to think are serious, the views they've been led to believe are entitled to respect, even if one disagrees.

The following is the E-mail I sent Professor Leiter in response to his post:
Prof. Leiter,

Recently, you linked to my post which critiqued your call to limit civility in public discourse. I just want to clear up a few things.
First of all, I'm not among those who "dismiss" either Chomsky or Nader. Indeed, while I identify as a center-leftist (albeit one with some sympathies for radical left legal scholarship, Delgado, MacKinnon et al), Chomsky isn't someone I'd dismiss out of hand (that's not saying I agree with him--I don't--but he certainly doesn't fall into my exception to civility). In other words, I'm not part of the right wing attack machine--not all the critics are coming from that angle.

The other part of your attack is that I'm being inconsistent--with views I dislike, throw civility out the door, with views you do, of course it must stay. That's one way to interpret it, I suppose (although the extrapolation isn't really fair--where do you warrant that I object to your incivility only because I disagree with it? It is at least possible that I object to incivility in principle, and it's Hitler that is the "exception"). However, I would argue that all rules break down at the margins--every attempt to articulate cohesive sets of philosophical guidelines has found this. The margin--for me--is genocide. That is the end point at which the rules break down. But creating an exception such that I can stand opposition to genocidal policies and their perpetrators is a reflection of the logical extreme of the principle--it doesn't negate the principle

Steven Pinker caught the dilemma nicely:

"The psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. In maintaining our most precious relationships, it is not enough to say and do the right thing. We have to show that our heart is in the right place and that we don't weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. If someone offers to buy your child or your spouse or your vote, the appropriate response is not to think it over or to ask how much. The appropriate response is to refuse even to consider the possibility. Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don't understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen....Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong."

And a dilemma it is. We all accept that there are certain ideas that should be rejected out of hand--but we simultaneously agree that to do so is not consistent with scholarly norms. It would take a smarter man than I to resolve the problem. But in the mean time, I think we can safely draw a line between Creationists and Nazis. Not because Creationists are right, or even making a reasonable argument. I simply think the rules change from the case of fringe "scientists" to that of advocates of mass murder.

It was the "who" more than the "what" that provoked my post. Thus far, we have managed to keep incivility contained to the very small group of extreme, radical evil. Creationists, for all their faults, are not in this category. I recognize the value of treating them such, but I fear for the Pandora's Box. Letting incivility become the norm, rather than the exception, strikes me as deeply dangerous to
civic cohesion and principled debate.

I hope you continue to read The Debate Link in the future. Leiter Reports has been on my blogroll for some time now--and it will continue to stay there. One disagreement does not a war declaration make. I'm sure we will clash again--indeed, I hope so. I also hope that we can do so in the spirit of discussion and open mindedness that I think we both agree is essential to a functioning polity.


David Schraub

The Debate Link:

Leiter seems to think, contra me, that the civility/incivility line is drawn between the "hard" questions and the "easy" ones. The "hard" questions include complex interpretations of Nietzsche and Foucault. The "easy" ones include "Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?" Leiter admits that "those who can't tell the difference between the two kinds of questions" pose problems--but of course, it is a flaw that occurs only in other people. For example, my cultural background relating to genocide has made the question of whether the US was "justified" in invading Iraq a relatively "easy" one, but in the opposite direction of Leiter (whether or not the reasons given for invading were right, proper, or moral is another question, and one I probably fall much closer to Leiter on). Given the intense dispute over the issue, I am inclined to err on the side of humility, and not be so confident in my own convictions that I assume my opponents do not deserve the time of day. I will argue both passionately and respectfully with those who disagree--and hopefully persuade them to my side (and also hopefully be honorable enough to recognize a good point or a flaw in my reasoning when I hear it). I remain unconvinced that Leiter's line is superior--either strategically or morally, than mine.

Leiter also hints that the shouter method is more likely to persuade people than a rational, dispassionate argument. This may be so--indeed, in my more pessimistic moods this constitutes one of my key objections to democracy as a panacea. However, I think that biting into this temptation will put Democrats and Liberals in a battle they cannot win. Subject of a follow up post, perhaps.

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