That an ethics dolt like Rick Robinson has spent so much time advising those in the Halls of Power speaks volumes about why our government institutions are dysfunctional and corrupt. His biography says he even ran for Congress. With ethical values like his—weak, dubious, and confused—it is a miracle he wasn’t elected.
In an essay for Tucker Carlson’s conservative news site The Daily Caller, Robinson defends the uncivil rhetoric of Jimmy (““Let’s take these sons of bitches out …”) Hoffa Jr and Rep. Joe ( “You lie!”) Wilson on the historically false and ethically idiotic grounds that “America was built on a solid foundation of uncivil political discourse.” It is ethically idiotic because this is consequentialism (“Everything turned out all right, so it was the right thing to do”) and a rationalization (“They did it, so we can too!), and it is historically false because no nation, indeed no functioning organization of any kind, was built on incivility….especially this one.
As his proof, Robinson cites the pamphlets of rabble-rouser Tom Paine, which is about as valid as citing the rants of Ann Coulter or Bill Maher today as leading the way to coherent legislation. Paine never wrote or passed a piece of legislation in his life. He was a provocateur, and an effective one, for sparking debate and stirring up emotions. Note, however, that his specialty was starting and supporting armed revolutions (he was involved in two), tearing down governments, not helping them function. Paine’s kind of polarizing rhetoric is poison to collaborative government, which is what a successful republic must be….as anyone who has been paying attention to America’s political system’s progressive rot since at least 2000 should know.
In fact, a far more persuasive argument is that the infant United States came into being and survived in spite of incivility, rather than because of it. John Adams toxic relationships in the Continental Congress, in no small measure due to his caustic rhetoric, almost sunk the prospects for ratification of the Declaration of Independence, Mutual incivility caused Aaron Burr to duel Alexander Hamilton, costing the latter his life. Luckily, the nation had one uncommon man renowned for his civility—George Washington. He was the one prominent figure our feuding Founders trusted, because he was respectful and fair to all.
After extolling Paine as his role model for political discourse, Robinson unveils the rest of his reasoning for declaring incivility desirable:
- It’s truthful. That is, James Hoffa really does think that Republicans are “sons of bitches.” What Robinson doesn’t grasp is that insults and personal derision only communicate emotions, and one’s emotions, like anger and hate, should be kept out of professional activities because they interfere with productive interactions. And while Hoffa’s crude language tells us what Hoffa “believes” in the most visceral sense, it doesn’t persuade or educate. His uncivil words contains “truth,” but such words carry truth like junk food carries nutrition. What they do not carry are enlightenment or respect, and in the absence of respect for one’s adversaries, debate, argument, or any form of joint reasoning is impossible.
- “Politicians have always quarreled with each other” and “The media has often resorted to incivility as well.” Well, I guess that makes it good, then, right? Politicians have also always taken bribes, and journalists have always manipulated facts to suit their own agenda. Here we have an experienced veteran of the political scene who really and truly thinks “it’s always been this way” and “everybody does it” are persuasive arguments for why a practice is “good.” Wow.
- “We enjoy incivility.” That’s true: people enjoy hearing people they disagree with being called nasty names. They also may enjoy seeing them hit on the head with hammers, or learning that they dropped dead in the streets. The political process is not, however, about having the maximum amount of fun by abusing those who differ with you. Politics, by definition, is by getting things accomplished, and incivility makes politics harder, to the detriment of everyone.
Richardson has apparently never heard of the Golden Rule, or if he has heard of it, he doesn’t comprehend it. In an environment in which there are no ethical limitations on how people express themselves to and about each other, there is nothing to prevent escalation into fighting words and violence. The Golden Rule, like all ethical principles, is based on logic and experience. What goes around comes around. We have to live in the environment we create.
Finally, since Richardson seems to have no problem with personal insults, let me be undiplomatically direct: his essay proves he’s just not very bright. His last point is that recent calls for civility have been cynically used by some pundits and politicians as a form of political correctness to stifle legitimate criticism. That is true, but it has nothing to do with the rest of his argument, which is that genuine incivility is good.
At the beginning of the year, Democrats and the “No-labels” crowd were attempting to falsely condemn any strong critique of political policies and positions as “uncivil.” It was a transparent and hypocritical tactic that distorted the concept of incivility. Calling the Tea Party’s platform ignorant and selfish is an opinion, though it is an opinion the Tea Party members won’t like. Calling them racists and morons who should “go to hell” is uncivil. Calling Republican policies greedy and uncaring is an opinion. Calling Republicans sons of bitches is uncivil. Calling Obama a weak and deceitful leader is an opinion. Saying he wants to destroy the country—or shouting out that he is a liar while he is speaking— is uncivil. The fake civility police have tried to blur these lines for one purpose, inhibiting conservative speech. Richardson is blurring the lines for another reason: he just doesn’t know what incivility is, or understand the harm it can do.
All he knows is that when politicians call each other insulting names, it’s fun and “honest.” My civil opinion of his article is that it is irresponsible and incompetent.
My uncivil opinion is that Richardson is an idiot.