Redefining Incivility

There was an interesting article recently in USA Today about the anniversary of the Tuscon shooting. Not so  interesting in terms of its content, maybe, but interesting in terms of how it was presented. The gist of the article was that “civility still eludes us”. But the implication was the meme that when it comes to incivility, “both sides do it”. It doesn’t really use that phrase, mind you; but it gyrates around it very seductively. Trouble is, the article comes up way short of presenting evidence that “both sides do it” equally (an absurd premise we’ve discussed before).

There are several examples of uncivil conduct mentioned in the article, but all were committed by right-wingers; they just aren’t always identified as such. It mentions ” bickering over the Native American speaker” at a memorial service for the Tuscon victims, when in fact the “bickering” was really scathing and sarcastic attacks from right-wing media. It mentions Republican congressman Joe Wilson yelling “You lie” in the middle of a presidential speech. It mentions that  “[a] Republican leader last month walked out of the House chamber rather than allow a Democrat the chance to speak.”  It mentions that “at town-hall meetings, voters booed lawmakers and shouted down fellow citizens who tried to express differing viewpoints” without specifying that those “voters” were Tea Party activists. It mentions that “opponents of a lawmaker flood a congressional switchboard with calls to disable the phone system and prevent others from airing views” without mentioning that this tactic was used (more than once) by Republicans.

But what’s most interesting is that the writer exhibits a trend that has become quite common in media discussion of this topic: redefining incivility in different terms for “conservatives” and “liberals” to make it appear that they are more or less equally uncivil- or even that “liberals” are more uncivil. Michael Moore, who appears never to have had an uncivil word for anyone in his life – he even made a point of complimenting George W. Bush as a person, even as he expressed outrage over how Bush came into office and horror at what he did in office – has more than once been called the “Ann Coulter of the left”, likening him to one of the most venomous in an endless procession of venomous right-wing pundits.

The article contains this interesting quote from Republican representative Jeff Flake of Arizona:

“Given the mess that the country’s in, I can never blame constituents for being angry,” he said. “Far be it from me to try to call out my constituents for passionate feelings on things.”

Oh. So the numerous death threats that have been made against President Obama and the Democrats in Congress are just a matter of “passionate feelings” about “the mess the country’s in”. So why haven’t a comparable number of threats been made against Republicans in Congress? Or against George W. Bush about the mess the country was in then?

In a desperate bid to dispel the notion that “conservatives” are uncivil and to pin incivility on “liberals”, the media will even resort to things like this:

At a 2009 constituent meet-and-greet at a Holbrook Safeway, one very similar to Giffords’ 2011 event, former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., left abruptly after some people in line to see her started shouting and demanding that she answer questions.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help getting the impression that the writer is trying to shift the fault for the detractors’ rudeness onto Kirkpatrick herself – after all, she’s the one who “left abruptly” rather than respond to “questions”. The writer seems to be parroting the Republican spin that she “turned her back on her constituents”.

And here’s a real gem quoted from John Genette, identified as president of Black Mountain Communications and the organizer of a project at Arizona State University called Civil Dialogue:

“If you’re a lefty and you hear that the sun is yellow, you might believe it, but if you hear the sun is yellow according to Fox News, you might say that sometimes it’s reddish,” he said. “There is a deep distrust of the other side.”

Oh. So challenging the hateful, factually deficient ramblings of Fox “News”  is  motivated only by “distrust of the other side”. Got it. And although Genette himself doesn’t say so there is, as the article reflects, a recurring narrative that speaking up against hateful rhetoric is itself hateful rhetoric, or even worse. Here’s the type of discourse that often occurs:

RIGHT-WINGER: Liberals are communists, they’re lazy, they’re NAZIs, they’re evil, they’re liars, they’re anti-American, and they’re destroying MY country. They want to outlaw prayer and penalize hard-working people and euthanize old people. Thank God (whom they don’t believe in) I have my Second Amendment rights to defend MY country against these scumbags.

NON-RIGHT-WINGER: I don’t think it’s very civil to say things like that, and it could cause some unstable person to commit violence.

RIGHT-WINGER: See what I mean? I told you these people were nasty!

MEDIA: And there you have it, folks. Clearly, both sides do it equally.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Just start paying attention, and I guarantee that you’ll see this pattern repeated many times over.

Consider the article’s piece de resistance: Sarah’s Palin’s crosshairs, targeting Democrats in Congress who committed the unpardonable offense of supporting healthcare reform. There has been probably more outrage over the reaction to this ad than there was over the ad itself, with many declaring it the ultimate mark of incivility to suggest that it may have been one element that inspired the Tuscon gunman. But to assume flatly that it wasn’t is to divorce it from the context of the eliminationist extremism (and gun glorification) that produced it. It may be incorrect to think that the crosshaired map exerted any influence on the shooter’s unbalanced brain, but it’s certainly not unreasonable to consider it a possibility. Indeed, not long before she was shot, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (one of Sarah’s “targets”) expressed concern about that very thing. And she wasn’t just being paranoid; her office already had been vandalized.

And here’s how Sarah herself responded:

“And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

Good grief. It isn’t enough to deny that there may have been something inappropriate about the map. It isn’t enough to call such criticism an “intolerant” attempt to “muzzle dissent”. It isn’t enough to claim that her insults have been merely “imagined”. It isn’t enough to portray herself as the innocent victim of a supposedly hostile media that in fact has been kissing her ass since she left the starting gate. It isn’t even enough to profess her inoffensiveness by working in the offensive term “blood libel.” No, this woman also has to shift the culpability to her critics for the very type of tragedy that has just occurred. Really classy, Sarah. She all but points an accusatory finger at Tina Fey.

Speaking of whom, many people consider it supremely uncivil when someone ridicules Palin’s apparent vapidity. But bear in mind that she herself appeared on “Saturday Night Live” alongside Fey doing an unflattering impression of her and Alec Baldwin saying uncomplimentary things about her. And bear in mind that nobody is calling her a commie terrorist Muslim Anti-Christ.  And contrary to what she’s claimed, there is no evidence that anyone has been making death threats against her, much less in numbers comparable to those against Democrats.

What did happen was that when she complained on her Facebook page about author Joe McGinnis moving next door to her, he received 5000 hostile emails, some containing death threats, within 24 hours. It was purely by chance that McGinnis, himself an Alaskan, acquired the house while writing a book about her. But like a civil neighbor, she framed him as a peeping tom and a menacing stalker.

Comedian Orlando Jones (who is neither a politician nor a political pundit) tweets jokes constantly, but one in particular aroused a great deal of ire because it included a punchline about “liberals” killing Sarah Palin. It was clearly a joke – maybe not a very good joke, maybe a tasteless joke, maybe even a dumb joke. But to the spinmeisters it was much more – it was solid confirmation that incivility is standard behavior for “liberals”.

Okay, fine. Deny him the benefit of a doubt if you wish. But does that one spontaneous remark really put him in a league with Tea Party leaders who deliver prepared speeches urging the faithful to arm themselves in readiness for taking out elected officials if they don’t get their way? Does it put him in a league with the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks and Ann Coulters who churn out hatred day after day after day? Does it put him in a league with the anonymous Arkansan(s) who brutally killed a cat belonging to a Democratic aide and then scrawled “liberal” on its body?

Oh yeah, one more little thing. Jones was adult enough to apologize for his comment. And as long as we’re insistent upon redefining incivility as the circumstances warrant, let’s see if we can at least agree that civility includes – pay attention, Sarah – a willingness to accept responsibility for one’s uncivil actions. Like Orlando Jones. Or maybe Keith Olbermann.

While Sarah was invoking the “I’m rubber, you’re glue”, defense, Olbermann – probably the only left-wing pundit who comes within light-years of the acrimony that’s standard issue for right-wing pundits – was saying this:

“Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our Democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence.”

Bit of a difference, wouldn’t you say?

5 thoughts on “Redefining Incivility

  1. John Genette here, source of the “gem” you quote above. The journalist chose only to use half of my quote on the subject of “the sun is yellow.” It’s not just that liberals don’t trust what they perceive as conservative sources. The other half of the story is that conservatives don’t trust what they perceive as liberal sources, even on something as seemingly obvious as “the sun is yellow.” It works both ways, these echo chambers, and that’s a problem we try to address through Civil Dialogue. (The veracity of Fox News is beyond our scope, but it appears that facts don’t matter much in shaping opinion.) The “sun is yellow” research can be found in the book “Predictably Irrational, The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” by Dan Ariely. See p.259.

    • Great to hear from you, John. It’s true, alas, that journalists often don’t tell the whole story. I’ve been on the receiving end of that problem a time or two myself. It may be a perfectly valid point that there is a mutual distrust; it just seemed to me that Fox was not a good illustration of this, since it has exhibited consistent, verifiable, deliberate distortion – as opposed to just run-of-the-mill ideological bias. Yes, I’ve read “Predictably Irrational” – great book. By the way, I applaud your efforts with Civil Dialogue.

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  4. You know I just came back from a Youtube comment section where a near parallel discourse like the one you presented. You probably may’ve heard at this point about massive hate against fandom groups who are often prejudiced into being involved with bestiality. I however found the biggest claim concerning pornographic material made in the fandom is present in MANY others outside them, to my disturbance, so I believe those who say they don’t.

    My point is that in nearly any thread they are typically very civil when generalization is made and they are only greeted with an overwhelming amount of ad hominems. The others however just throw words like “gay”, “fag”, “pedophile” etc. and overall make hostile comments. I was NEVER attacked with such prejudice before so I can only imagine how they manage such tolerance towards replies.

    It makes me think that, considering the identical form of uncivility, that these people would overlap in the same demographics as the Right Wingers.

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