Thursday, June 16, 2005

Against Politeness In Debate

Politeness: it is nice, in general life. It makes things run fairly smoothly in daily interaction, and I mostly approve of it. I was raised to practice it like a nice boojy Jewish girl from the suburbs, and overall I like my days much better with it than without.

In political debate, however, I think politeness merits a bit more skepticism. In debate politeness functions as a weapon of power. It's no coincidence that the conservative trolls who haunt our comments boxes trying to bog us down in fruitless wheel-spinning debate are, for the most part, scrupulously and explicitly polite. They make a big point of how polite they are, and how we are failing in our argumentative duty when we act otherwise. (NB: this doesn't apply to the mutant muscular-liberal
Harry's-Place-type thugs; they have no more truck with politesse than with reasoned argument or intellectual rigor.)

The thing to be aware of about politeness in debate is that it operates down a power gradient. Politeness is a behavioral discipline required of people without power, by the people who have power over them. That's how your parents taught you to be polite in the first place: they were in a position to require you to say 'please' before you got what you wanted. Only later does it get rationalized as a social-contract-among-equals form of social lubricant. That's a gloss. The functional reality of politeness is that it is optional for those with the power to take what they want, while
for those without that power it is frequently the only hope. Ask nicely.

Thus the conservatives who practice politeness
in political debate do so from a position of rather languid noblesse oblige; they have nothing to lose by maintaining civility, because things are already as they would have them be. They're not fighting, they're--duh--conserving. Indeed, imposing politeness on their opponents is very much in their interests, in precisely the same way that outlawing various forms of resistance is in the interest of any hegemonic power. It's a way of keeping us docile, and a remarkably efficient way to boot, because it self-polices by reference to our ingrained notions of proper behavior.

This self-policing function is particularly obvious
these days among the American supposed left. The latest Howard Dean reprimand-fest is a classic example of Democratic self-defeating schoolmarmish fingerwaggery. For various reasons, I don't generally have the time of day for Howard Dean, but he's certainly had a fit of telling it like it is lately, and the ensuing shitstorm is fully bipartisan. From Nancy 'Only Isaiah Can Adequately Express The Fervor Of Her Support For Israel' Pelosi, we have the stinging support-groupesque admonition: 'I don't think the statement [Dean] made was a helpful statement'.

From a Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), we get a much more telling formulation: 'I've always been very cautious and careful to deal with my Democratic friends, my independent friends, my enlightened Republican friends, so I'm very concerned about anything that is unnecessarily divisive.' The NYT goes on to note that 'Mr. Nelson was among those who admonished Dr. Dean, a former governor of Vermont, in private, cautioning him not to risk alienating Republicans with personal insults of the kind he delivered last week, when he said that many "of them have not made an honest living in their lives."' Yes, heaven forfend we alienate the Republicans! Otherwise they might...um, find some superhuman way of doing
even more of exactly whatever the fuck they want than they do now?

Don't risk alienating them OR WHAT? Newt Gingrich won't invite Hillary 'I Can't Help Noticing She Still Has Her Skin' Clinton over for playdates anymore? The Dems won't be allowed to gratefully decline to use their supposed right to filibuster anymore? If the Republicans actually possessed a thematically appropriate ability to deliver physical venomous bites from well-concealed fangs, I could understand this policy of caution. As it stands, there's fuck-all they could be provoked into doing by rudeness that they're not already being allowed to do by politeness.

I'm on several health policy listservs at the American Medical Students' Association. Most of the contributors, as you might imagine, are earnest young liberals who support universal health care (UHC) and are in agonies over violence towards women and Darfur and HIV and all manner of other good things. A few, though, are ignorant intellectually-risible trolls. There is a more or less perpetual, tidal debate cycling about how to achieve UHC, and like clockwork every week or so a new troll pops up and shouts, 'Socialized medicine! Nooooo! Socialism bad! Nationalization double bad! Poor people don't work hard, so they shouldn't be allowed to STEAL the hard-earned money of rich people who do!' And every damn time, all the earnest little listies muck in, go back to first principles, and try to engage these troglodytes in debate. Try to change their 'minds' by politely reasoning with them. It simply could not be more futile, time-wasting and counterproductive. In a discussion ostensibly dedicated to developing viable models for covering the uninsured, about 5% of posts actually make some stab at that, with the remaining 95% devoted to 'UHC is socialism! It's BAAAAAAAD!' followed by 'Not it's not, and here are nine pages of closely reasoned argumentation to back me up,' followed by 'YES IT IS!'

Recently I tried to short-circuit this hideous cycle by responding first to one of these idiots, and suggesting that instead of wasting everyone's time spouting unexamined shite based on no information at all, she do some reading and inform herself as to the barest characteristics of the systems in question. I wasn't terribly polite. I didn't call her a fatheaded ignorant fuckpig as I would have liked, but my tone was both stern and dismissive; she in fact merited dismissal.

You can imagine the result. Offended, reprimanding posts from all corners, earnestly invoking the Need To Hear All Sides, Need To Respect Each Other, Need To Maintain Civil Debate, &c. And on they plunged heedless, headlong into a completely fucking useless rondo with this necrotic tart, which has been raging full-on for four days and shows no sign of abating. She posts some indefensible paragraph of stinking, hateful, ignorant shite, and five of them respond with pages-long, fully-documented, achingly Respectful reasoning, repeat to fade.

It makes me want to weep with exhaustion, with the futility and waste. That's energy and time that could be so very much better spent productively furthering our cause, if only they'd take the bit in their teeth enough to recognize that politeness is not a required parameter of progressive political debate, and you don't have to give audience to those who can't be bothered to reason with rigor, information and good will.

We don't owe politeness to those who believe hateful things and want to engage us in fruitless debate about them. By all means, let us practice politeness in our daily interactions with all and sundry. But let us not be constrained by its hegemony in debate, where the really important things go on.

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