Andrew Coyne: Trump doesn’t deserve civility, but it’s the best weapon against him

Good arguments by Coyne on resisting descending to the gutter, even if hard to do so:

All in all it’s been a fine season for the tu quoque.

As America’s nervous breakdown continues apace, there has been a sudden outbreak of concern for the decline in civility, particularly among supporters of President Civility, Donald Trump.

The signs, it seems, are everywhere: the Homeland Security secretary was hounded out of a restaurant by protesters. The White House press secretary was asked to leave by management at another. Here in Canada, things have gotten so out of hand that several Ottawa dignitaries declined to attend this year’s 4th of July party at the US ambassador’s.

All of which has been fodder for yet more vituperation on social media, where incivility has been the norm since day one. Critics, particularly on the left, have scoffed at the suggestion there is anything particularly new or over the line about the insults lately offered members of the Trump administration, not least given the constant stream of insults spewing from the gold-plated spigot in the Oval Office.

Surely, they ask, the people first to decry the chilling effects of political correctness on free speech have not suddenly themselves turned into snowflakes? To which the right replies: wait, so now the left is in favour of free speech? You mean now it’s OK for a business to refuse service to someone on the basis of certain deeply held beliefs? To which the response from the left, inevitably, is: you mean you’re no longer defending their right to do so?

And everyone has had a perfectly marvellous time calling each other out for their hypocrisy. These days, that’s the only sin anyone bothers with, since it requires no judgments, but only comparisons.

It does seem a bit late in the day to be fretting about the absence of civility in American public life. Nor would rudeness, as such, rank among the more pressing of the Great Republic’s problems at the moment. Whatever discomfort the Homeland Security secretary might have endured on her night out, her critics are surely right to say it is nothing compared to the suffering the administration she serves has imposed on, oh, immigrant children, for example.

So no, I’m not particularly moved by sympathy for Trump officials. Nor am I of a mind to scold the protesters for their bad manners. I would only ask: what purpose are they trying to achieve? Because if the intent is actually to persuade anyone who is not already opposed to the president and his policies, this is the very worst way to go about it.

The argument for civility in debate is an old one, and not much heard these days. In the online world it tends to be regarded as an affectation, a luxury only the privileged can afford.

But the case for civility is not grounded in a concern for mere decorum. It’s really one of self-interest. Treating opponents civilly — listening to their arguments, rather than shouting them down; presenting them fairly, without caricature; addressing them squarely, without ad hominems — isn’t just good manners. It’s smart strategy.

Yes, much harm is done to the general climate of debate when it descends into shouting and name-calling. But the worst harm done by such behaviour, in my observation, is to the cause of those engaging in it.

Because if you want people who do not already share your views to listen to you — not your opponents, necessarily, but the broad mass of people who are typically somewhere in between — if that matters to you, they won’t do so if you’re shouting. And the louder you shout, the less they’ll hear you.

This isn’t just a matter of sticking to facts and arguments; as important as that is, it’s frankly secondary in the real world of how opinions are formed. Rather, people often judge matters of controversy in the light of their impressions of the combatants.

We are hard-wired to be more persuaded by people who themselves seem open to persuasion: who are led by facts rather than preconceptions; who have understood the opposing view and can rebut it, not in caricature, but on its most reasonable possible construction; and, perhaps most importantly, who treat us as if we were reasonable people ourselves — who talk to us as adults, rather than shouting or talking down to us.

The “rules” of debate, that is, are there for the disputants’ own good. When people don’t follow the rules, we tend to conclude, not that their position is so obviously superior as to absolve them of such petty constraints, but rather that they have something to hide — either that they haven’t fully understood their opponents’ arguments, or worse, that they have, and cannot answer them.

But, you’re saying, what has this got to do with Trump? This might be good advice in normal times, against a normal opponent, but these are not those, and he is not that. Aren’t I just “normalizing” Trump?

There is a danger of that, admittedly. Anybody in the persuasion game soon learns of the danger of being equally outraged by everything. You have to keep a “high C” in reserve that you can go to when things get truly outrageous.

The difficulty Trump presents is that he says and does about six things a day that would normally call for the coloratura treatment. Do so, and you risk people tuning out. But fail to do so, and you are effectively giving him a volume discount.

But you don’t escape this dilemma by ignoring it. The thing that would truly “normalize” Trump is if everyone got down in the gutter with him. The one true weapon that decent people have against him is decency, and the power of the opposite example.

It is the path not just of reason, but I dare say cunning.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Trump doesn’t deserve civility, but it’s the best weapon against him

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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