How Civility Is Like Torture

Civility is a hot topic lately. Based on the smoke from my Twitter feed, here’s where we stand:

  • The Left has just abandoned civility because Trump is causing an EXISTENTIAL CRISIS!
  • The Right abandoned civility the moment they made Trump their presidential nominee/warlord. Despite this, they are currently complaining about the Left’s lack of civility.

For all the wailing and posturing to the contrary, both sides have the same view of civility: it’s fine under normal circumstances, but dangerous in EMERGENCIES(!).

This thinking is wrong for the same reason that torture is wrong. I should probably explain.

The general sides for the torture debate are simple: should torture (1) always be illegal, or (2) be legal only in emergencies? During my conservative firebrand days, I would have said (2) because of the following scenario. Terrorists have planted a nuke somewhere in New York City. Time is running out. The CIA has captured one of the terrorists, but he won’t talk. It’s up to the dashing American hero agent to get the truth–no matter what.

Now if “emergency” only meant this kind of Tom Clancy scenario, it would be so rare that it wouldn’t be much of a threat. But if I’ve learned anything from all my case law research, it’s that definitions have a tendency to mutate. “Emergency” might start only with that true doomsday scenario. But the next time the hero agent will figure it’s “close enough” to the emergency precedent to torture for a conventional bomb instead of a nuclear bomb. Then he’ll figure it’s close enough to that new definition to torture for a terrorist leader. The time after that he’ll torture to find the leader’s assistant. And then a new terrorist recruit.

That’s why torture should never be legal, even in emergencies. Before we know it, “emergency” has become meaningless, and torture is generally allowed.

Civility is the same way.

The Left’s emergency rationale is the Trump presidency. On the surface, this is a good rationale. After all, Trump is exactly the sort of egomaniacal fear-mongering would-be-tyrant that the founders warned us about. Someone on the Left could easily compare this to the nuclear torture scenario: if not now, then when?

But then the rationales mutate. After Trump is gone, the Left will drop civility against some of the Trumpier congressional candidates. Then they’ll use the rationale for the sort-of Trumpy candidates. Pretty soon, they’ll abandon civility against any and all Republicans, because it’s an EMERGENCY!

The Right has already reached that end point. Otherwise-rational Republicans supported Trump because they believed the 2016 election was a grand reckoning. It was the “Flight 93 Election” where we had to charge the cockpit or die. If you grant the premise, it almost makes sense: the Republic will end if we lose this election, so we must do whatever it takes to win. Even support Trump.

But the premise is insane.

Sure, the 2016 election was important. But here’s the thing: EVERY PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IS IMPORTANT. If the emergency rationale has mutated this much, then Republicans have officially abandoned civility. It’s the equivalent of torturing any suspected terrorist using the nuclear rationale.

The lesson here? Don’t abandon civility, no matter how dire the circumstances. Otherwise, we’ll turn around and find the Right and Left in a spiraling apocalypse of last-ditch survival strategies.

Wait, we’re there already? Oh….

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Photo by Brian Klug

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