No, Civility Is Not “Bullshit”


I’ve been tempted for some time to challenge Ann Althouse’s “civility bullshit” argument, which she has proclaimed for years and even has a tag on her blog for it. Her claim that civility is bullshit is bullshit, and obviously so: she runs a civil blog, and if she really thought civility was bullshit, she wouldn’t. Today she used her argument again, this time in the fisking of a rationalization-filled Karen Tumulty defense of Neera Tanden in the Washington Post. Althouse writes,

I’ve been writing under the tag “civility bullshit” for years. It represents my longstanding opinion that calls for civility are always bullshit. Certainly in the area of politics, calls for civility always come out when the incivility is hurting your people. When somebody is deploying incivility effectively for your side, you hold your tongue and enjoy the damage. 

That’s a shockingly bad argument for a lawyer, never mind a law professor. Saying that many people cynically use complaints about civility to silence dissent doesn’t mean that civility itself is an invalid value. One could say the same about lying, or adultery. Althouse is complaining about hypocrisy.

Furthermore, I don’t comprehend how anyone could have observed the last four years and not admit that civility is crucial. That was at the core of my warning in 2015 that electing a President like Donald Trump would turn the country into a nation of assholes. The President is always a powerful role model, and it was clear that a President Trump, given his habits and proclivities (and lack of self-control), would do terrible harm to civility in American society, and as the many follow-up pieces here track, he did.

Civility is not only a component of the second of the Josephson Institute’s Six Pillars of Character, but in my view the keystone of the value. This is why it is listed first among those components, which are Civility, Courtesy, Decency, Dignity, Tolerance, Acceptance and Autonomy. As I have told my seminar classes for decades, civility is a Golden Rule value, an example of treating others as you would want to be treated. It signals formal respect, even when the respect is formal only, and thus helps allow systems like the family, organizations the government, and society to function. Showing disrespect to my parents or adults as a child meant guaranteed punishment. An employee who demonstrated disrespect by being uncivil to me was risking dismissal. (I once stunned a production of a play when I fired a back-talking cast member on the spot when he addressed me in an uncivil tone during a final dress rehearsal.) The consistently uncivil rhetoric directed at President Trump harmed his ability to lead the nation and damaged American traditions and institutions. Speaker Pelosi’s despicable tearing up of the State of the Union address was an all-time low in American politics, perhaps equaled by a member of “The Squad” who repeatedly said that the party should “impeach the motherfucker” without being disciplined. A Republican member of Congress who used such words regarding President Obama would have, and should have, been censored.

The post in which Althouse repeats her pet grievance accurately attacks a Post column headlined, “The people concerned about Neera Tanden’s incivility sure didn’t seem to mind the Trump era’s.” Tumulty has long been one of D.C. journalism’s dimmer talking heads, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and presume the headline wasn’t her doing. Could there be a more obvious invitation to the accusation of “Whataboutism”? Conduct is wrong, or it isn’t: the fact that an individual might have tolerated similar wrongful conduct in the past may eliminate them as a credible critic, but it doesn’t change the wrongfulness of the conduct at issue, or alter its harm. Needen is nominated for the leadership of an important agency that must be trusted by both parties. She disqualified herself by stupidly tweeting insults to various Republican law-makers, and President Trump’s uncivil ways have nothing to do with it. Moreover “the people concerned with Neera Tanden’s inciviity” DID “mind ” both his obnoxious rhetoric and that of the AUC (the Axis of Unethical Conduct–“the resistance/Democrats/ and the news media) toward him, which, incidentally, and I kept score, was more uncivil.

Althouse writes,

“But let’s consider the Neera Tanden problem. Her incivility is in the past. People on her side enjoyed the damage she inflicted at the time and I don’t think any of her people tried to pull her back with calls for civility. It’s just that now she’s Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and the Budget, and the old incivility makes her seem like too much of a political hack to be trusted in that position. Nobody bellyaches about incivility when it’s working as a weapon for their side, and the charge of incivility is another political weapon, whipped out when the other side is landing incivility punches on you.” 

…which still doesn’t mean that the accusation of incivility is “bullshit.” It isn’t as if Democrats didn’t endorse Tanden’s bile then and are rejecting it now. One Democratic Senator is saying now that it was disqualifying, and how does Althouse know he didn’t feel that way about her tweets all along? She is right that Tumulty’s reasoning is terrible, like this section:

Manchin, after all, voted in 2018 to confirm Richard Grenell as ambassador to Germany. He was apparently unconcerned — as were 55 of his Senate colleagues — with the diplomatic skills of a social media troll who in the past had tweeted that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “is starting to look like Madeleine Albright” and that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow should “take a breath and put on a necklace.” Grenell’s social media lowlights also included mocking the hairstyle of Callista Gingrich, who was later named Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican. 

Althouse reacts, “A nominee for Ambassador to Germany said a few things about how women look. Is that it?” I wouldn’t have voted for Grenell, but the point is that his nasty comments about those women are neither indicators that he couldn’t to the largely ceremonial job of Ambassador to Germany or relevant to Tanden’s situation, for she insulted, repeatedly, the very law-makers she would have to work with. Had Grennell; made his nasty comments about the Chacellor of Germany, I think its a safe bet that he would not have been confirmed…or even nominated.

The truly asinine Tumulty op-ed ends with,

[G]iven the general climate on social media, Republicans would do well to worry what might happen to a GOP president’s nominees in the future. If senators really want to usher in a new standard of civility, the first thing they might want to consider is whether it should begin with forgiveness.

What is that, an “Everybody does it” argument? Forgiving misconduct doesn’t mean pretending it didn’t happen. If the idea is to return to civility, then the approach has to include making public incivility have substantive negative consequences. Tanden said she was sorry (in a dubious apology), and it’s fine to forgive her, but her words were her words. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you trust them, or should (I have a lot of experience on that topic). Congress should tell Tanden that when and if she proves by her conduct going forward that she can be an advocate without insulting those with whom she disagrees, then she might be a viable budget director.

Because incivility is not bullshit.

19 thoughts on “No, Civility Is Not “Bullshit”

  1. Useful post. I was always confused by Althouse on this point but had never taken the time to figure out why. She’s just talking about hypocrisy. Very sloppy and confusing work on her part.

  2. I don’t know about thinking civility is complete garbage, however, I think, like fairness, like belief, like giving someone the benefit of the doubt, in the end it really depends on who the other person is. Civility is necessary if incivility would be counterproductive, especially if you need to work with the other person, but if there is no need to work together, or if you hate the other person with a passion, maybe it pays to not be civil. It’s also now a question of politics, most liberal people will not be civil to most conservative people and vice versa. Let’s not also forget last summer, when it was said many times that the black community was done being civil, because it had gotten them nowhere. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to throw civility out the window too.

    • Yes, let’s not forget how ironic Jack’s prediction of Trump’s presidency turning the country into a nation of assholes was. It did indeed: every lefty has acted like an asshole for the last more than four years.

      • I suspect they were like that before, we were just sheltered from it by the press. Obama was hardly civil to Republicans and conservatives in this country, but he was shielded by a monolithic press. The destruction of that press monopoly on information has changed our view of our leaders. I think Obama would be viewed as just as uncivil as Trump or Biden if he were president today and we got to see him as reported by conservative sources.

  3. It represents my longstanding opinion that calls for civility are always bullshit. Certainly in the area of politics, calls for civility always come out when the incivility is hurting your people.

    I think her point is not that civility is bullshit, but that when ideologues call for civility it is usually insincere.

  4. While I agree that President Trump’s coarse and obnoxious behavior inspired other foul behavior, but couldn’t disagree more with some people’s contention that their own offensive behavior is somehow excused by Trump’s.

  5. The Republicans who claim that they are civil are usually weak sisters at best. (Romney for one) Sometimes, there’s a need to call a spade a spade. And a knave, a knave.

    • As long as the left applauds guys like Bill Maher, who called Sarah Palin a cunt and a twat, and Dan Savage, who can’t finish a sentence without dropping an f-bomb, I’m not interested in fake calls for civility. OK, they said saying someone should shit in Sarah Palin’s mouth was going too far, but that’s nothing to be proud of. That said, overuse of rage and foul language blunts the impact and risks people just rolling their eyes and saying “so-and-so is just banging pots and pans again.”

    • (My cynicism and sarcasm are in full bloom here, Wayne. Allow me to proceed, Thusly)

      Oooh! You’re in trouble, Wayne! Trigger alert! Trigger alert!

      You wrote “spade”!

      Re education camp for you, sir!

      White supremist Racist words are not permitted on big tech anymore.

      Repent now.

    • Hence my selective use of “asshole” when no other description will do. To be fair, Mitt is perfectly capable of delivering a hammer civilly. He just blinked when he was being worked over by Obama, unfortunately.

  6. Jack, in reading Ann Alhouse for years since you mentioned her, I understood her civility/BS. My understanding is that any “call for Civility is BS” not civility itself.

    It’s BS for Dem’s to call for civility with regard to Tanden when they didn’t show civility to Kavanaugh which is an example of her claim.

    • Again, if that’s what she means, she should say so. “Civility bullshit” means that civility is bullshit. This is someone who nitpicks about language all the time, like whether “garner” is used correctly. She’s a language pedant. If the issue is hypocrisy, then call it that. Double standards? Fine. Civility is NOT bullshit, so “civility bullshit” is indefensible.

      • Agree she should be more clear, but she is creating short hand. I got that. I think you might not have picked that up.
        Again I agree with being civil. But calling for civility when you haven’t shown it is bullshit. (Her point).

        • No, I’m saying that when someone who makes a fetish about precision in language uses an ambiguous phrase and never makes it clear exactly what she means—and I’ve read many of the old posts on the tag—then she is responsible for what the meaning that comes across is. She has literally said that ANY TIME anyone complains about incivility, it’s bullshit, because she claims no one objects to incivility against someone they don’t like.

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