Civility, like free speech generally, is now something we increasingly demand for ourselves and refuse to afford others. Civility means that we get to wish others a merry Christmas whether or not others celebrate it. Civility means that you can refuse service to an LGBT patron of your business, and that she should be politely accepting of that choice. Civility isn’t about bridging the divide so much as it is about being treated civilly regardless of our words or actions.
As Adam Serwer summarized it in this month’s Atlantic: “There are two definitions of civility. The first is not being an asshole. The second is ‘I can do what I want and you can shut up.’ The latter definition currently dominates American political discourse.”
In that vein, Joe Biden caused a stir in June when he thought back fondly to a more civil era in politics: Recalling his debates with avowed segregationists like Mississippi’s James Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The problem of course is that “getting things done” by meeting unabashed racists halfway no longer feels like a win-win, so much as capitulation. Serwer made this point eloquently: “The true threat to America is not an excess of vitriol, but that elites will come together in a consensus that cripples democracy and acquiesces to the dictatorship of a shrinking number of Americans who treat this nation as their exclusive birthright because of their race and religion. This is the false peace of dominance, not the true peace of justice, (emphasis added). Until Americans’ current dispute over the nature of our republic is settled in favor of the latter, the dispute must continue.” Lithwick writes, "In other words, there will be no civility if it means powerful men colluding to harm the powerless—nor should there be."
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