Political Incivility, Justified?

Photograph of many people holding signs at a political rally
"Trump Rally in Asheville" by Will Thomas is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

“Civility” has been in the news recently. Stories of allegedly uncivil behavior in politics have received much coverage. The most recent event to kick off so much consternation was the decision of the owner of the Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia to refuse to service to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders because of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy and the President’s desire to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Even more recently, Maxine Waters, a Democratic congressperson, told rally attendees that protestors should take even more confrontational steps against Administration officials—confronting them as they go about their daily lives pumping gas, shopping, or eating in restaurants. The President himself has been accused many times of acting uncivilly towards others. One need only browse his past tweets to see comments using demeaning and insulting language to describe individuals he views as enemies of himself or his administration.

Reactions to what many have claimed to be an increasing tone of incivility in political discourse vary quite widely. Either increasing incivility is another stepping stone on the path to a complete breakdown of democratic norms and institutions, or it is the only possible and necessary reaction to the extraordinary and daily assaults on freedom and democracy committed by the current Administration. The Washington Post’s Editorial Board, for instance, writes, “How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families? Down that road lies a world in which only the most zealous sign up for public service. That benefits no one.” In contrast, one opinion piece in The Week ends with the following line: “The world might be a much better place if powerful people experienced severe social ostracization in the nation’s capital when they committed or enabled terrible crimes.”

Normally, being rude to someone and calling them names is morally wrong. There is not much debate over this. We do not want our children to be bullies, and parents often invoke the moral command “Be Nice” when their kids are pushing, biting, pulling, yelling, etc. One way of framing the debate over civility is to ask if the “Be Nice” moral rule is absolute or contains genuine exceptions. If it contains genuine exceptions (that is, if there are instances in which it is morally acceptable or even morally required to be mean), what are they? Is political protest in the face of the current Administration’s policies one of those legitimate exceptions?

Politeness, respect, or deference are not owed to people who commit or allow to be committed certain extreme moral transgressions, one might argue. In fact, morality may even require forceful condemnation and social censure against such moral transgressors. If political incivility is morally justified in our current circumstances, then such justification depends on how we weigh the seriousness of the alleged injustices being perpetrated. An opinion piece in The Village Voice entitled “The Moral Case for Incivility” appears to make a similar argument. The author deploys the story of the prophet Jeremiah who rudely castigated the moral and political failings of Jerusalem during his time. Note that this pushes us into a consequentialist calculus. It is a matter of whether the seriousness of the alleged injustices and the potential effectiveness of uncivil disruption in reversing those injustices outweighs the disruption of the general social well-being that is maintained by most people who usually follow the moral rule of being polite to each other. This debate is one of consequences and tactics, and empirical concerns for the effect of incivility on democratic engagement matter. “Insults and outrage damage our relationships with government and each other,” claims Emily Sydnor in the Washington Post. Sydnor also claims that political scientists have evidence showing that “uncivil campaign rhetoric can generate stronger interest in voting and in politics more generally.” How we judge the competing empirical evidence and apply it to a specific situation at hand will play a large role in our conclusion as to whether incivility (and what form it takes) is justified. Such a complicated and politically fraught analysis would require much more space than this short post allows.

One might also emphasize that the “Be Nice” rule, in its normal application, concerns the treatment of others who are roughly equal in political and social power to you. Different standards apply depending on the special relationships that exist between people. Parents, of course, should be nice to their children. But an action performed by a sibling (say “taking away a toy”) may have a different moral character when performed by a parent. Taking away a toy may be a legitimate form of discipline if coming from a parent, but an older sibling who tries to punish their younger brother or sister by taking away a toy is acting like a tyrant or bully.

There is a social contract, one might argue, underlying the relationship between the citizens of a nation and their civil servants, elected or unelected, who make choices that govern the citizens’ lives. Power is granted to our representatives to enact and enforce political decisions, but it is not granted freely. Special responsibilities attach to these powers, chief among which is an accountability to citizens. This is an accountability much stronger than what we may each have to each other as citizens. I don’t have a responsibility to tell you who I voted for and why. If you called me every day, badgering me for this information, that would be downright rude. My representative does have a responsibility, on the other hand, to provide his reasons for the votes he takes. Does this heightened accountability mean that the President’s Press Secretary should be vulnerable to being refused service as part of political protest? Maybe, maybe not. However, her heightened accountability does appear to matter in our estimation of what kinds of treatment are justified.

Daniel Beck is a recent PhD graduate from Michigan State University’s Department of Philosophy. He has presented on topics in bioethics, environmental philosophy, moral philosophy, and political philosophy at both national and international professional conferences, and his scholarly work on bioethics methodology has been published in a peer reviewed academic journal.