Rush Limbaugh recently talked explicitly about calls for civility in the media, saying that "civility is the new censorship". In a sense, he is correct, in that when liberals (myself included) talk about civility, we specifically mean people like Limbaugh, whose livelihood is based on demonization of the opposing political viewpoint. I have to admit that when I talk about civility in politics, as someone who views civility as an intrinsic part of their work, I have him in mind, not Rachel Maddow, the liberal equivalent (more on equivalency in a bit). However, perhaps liberals will get further by marginalizing rather than directly attacking people like Limbaugh.
In the wake of the Gabrial Giffords shooting, there is no real plausible defense of incivility that will sway much of the public. So instead, Limbaugh's basic argument is that liberals are even more uncivil than conservatives. Below is an excerpt:
RUSH: President Obama urges civility in public discourse. F. Chuck Todd is now happily reporting this on MessNBC: President Obama urging civility in public discourse. When I think of the left wing, I think civil, don't you? Code Pink, the New Black Panthers, union bosses beating up black conservatives in St. Louis, ACORN, illegal alien marches, why, it doesn't get more civil than that. The trashing of the Tea Party movement for the last nearly two years, that's civil. When I think of MSNBC, I not only think of journalistic excellence, but civility, don't you? That whole class warfare thing, I mean that's nothing but civility on display. When I think of the counterculture movement of the sixties, I think civility. When I think of Rahm Emanuel, the man Obama chose as his own chief of staff two years ago, I think of civility. We don't need lectures from uncivil leftists about civility, much less Obama. Bitter clingers and all the other incendiary things he's had to say, both as a candidate and as president.
In fact, ladies and gentlemen, isn't one of your complaints that Republicans are too docile? Isn't one of your complaints that Republicans just sit there and take it, that the left is always on the march, always accusing, always throwing bombs, and the Republicans just sit there and take it? The fact of the matter is the Republicans are civil, as the left defines it. They don't say anything. That's exactly what civil means. Another couple of examples. Give your civil reaction to the charge that you oppose Obama because he's black. Give me your civil reaction to you are a racist because you have criticized President Obama. Show me how to react in a civil way. Give me your civil reaction to this: You want to take money from the poor and line your pockets and the pockets of the rich. You don't care about the unfortunate. In fact, you and your buddies have created homelessness. Give me the civil reaction to that. If it was up to you, we would still have slavery today.
First, the point of civility is not to get people to "sit there and take it". Disagreement and debate about policy is healthy. Rather, as stated on the home page of civilpolitics.org, "Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency." It is possible to disagree on a policy, but believe that others who disagree are not evil, anti-American, stupid, or heartless. By that standard, Limbaugh clearly falls short and so does much of what goes on in liberal circles, where many liberals do think that conservatives "don't care about the unfortunate" and are either stupid or heartless. Being clear about what civility means allows us to setup bright lines that Limbaugh and Maddow both cross. Maybe calling liberals evil or anti-American is uncivil, but so is calling conservatives stupid or heartless, which is more or less what MSNBC does.
The other reaction I have to Limbaugh's passionate defense of incivility echoes the words of David Frum, a prominent conservative, who used these words to chastize Rachel Maddow, who was making fun of Sarah Palin in the below video. While my policy preferences rest with Maddow, I have to admit being swayed by Frum's specific words that: "The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way" (see about 4 minutes and 40 seconds into the below video). The fact that Limbaugh is uncivil does not make it ok for Maddow to be uncivil nor vice versa.
Frum goes on to talk about how the vocal liberals and the vocal conservatives "have a symbiotic relationship of negativity". There is much truth in this. For example, as explained in this article, conservative radio thrives on the idea that liberals want to silence them.
The take home message for me? It is time to unilaterally withdraw from the symbiotic relationship that the far left has with the far right. Frum quotes Ghandi in the above clip, saying that we should 'be the change' we want to see in the world. I agree. In Ghandi's philosophy (Satyagraha), you don't win by defeating your opponent, you win by converting them to your cause. Conservativism thrives under threat (see research on Terror Management). Instead of demonizing Limbaugh or trying to legislate the end of his livelihood, liberals would do better by marginalizing extreme conservative voices by refusing to cooperate in "us vs. them" zero-sum framing of politics. Conservativism is strongest when it has an enemy to rally against. Let us not be the enemy that Limbaugh needs to keep going.
- Ravi Iyer
For the past few months, I have been working with Matt Motyl and Jon Haidt on a website that promotes research based methods for increasing civility in politics. The desire to increase civility in politics is not new, having been parodied as the cliche-d dream of PhD Poli Sci students and recently promoted by Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, but it has obviously been taken to a new level with the tragic shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others, with politicians on both the left and the right, calling for a less heated atmosphere.
Predictably, the response to the shooting has taken on a partisan tinge, with each side claiming that Loughner, the shooter, is a far-right activist, evidenced by his interest in Ayn Rand, or a far-left activist, evidenced by his interest in the Communist Manifesto. More indirectly, those on the left have blamed the right for their militant rhetoric, while those on the right have pointed out that the left sometimes uses similar rhetoric.
Some on the left have pointed out that the use of extreme rhetoric is unbalanced, and while I don't think this is necessarily wrong, I think it is a mistake to focus upon, especially for liberals and those who want less divisiveness in politics. It sets up an "us vs. them" dynamic at a time when all leaders, including Republicans that are sometimes characterized as obstructionist, are open to unity.
Have you ever noticed that liberal churches often have the word 'unity' in their title? That conservatives want to solve health care by increasing competition across state lines? That liberals prefer diplomatic, while conservatives prefer military solutions to conflicts? Doesn't it seem as if Fox News sees purportedly unbiased (e.g. NPR is run by fascists) and moderate (e.g. the Rally to Restore Sanity) entities as greater existential threats than the more obviously opposed, MSNBC?
Liberalism is congruent with cooperation, while conservativism is oriented toward competition. In social science, linguist George Lakoff shows how conservatives use the language of competition. In psychology, Morton Deutch's considerable work was inspired by the difference between competitive and cooperative systems and his work can be explicitly connected to liberal-conservative differences. Consider the below YourMorals data showing that liberals feel less warm towards sports fans than conservatives.
Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed. Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism). However, competitive framing and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives. We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides. If there is anything that the killer's reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if you are interested, here is Jon Haidt's reaction to these events.