Civility and Smarts — Keeping Your Cool

There is an idea afoot that our current political crisis is caused by incivility. The principle problem is tone, not content. This idea has traction only among the more comfortable (and white) middle class. Different standpoints, different perceptions. On the other hand, some of those who are most upset about this anodyne narrative on civility are equally bereft of logic — seeing outrage not only as legitimate (many things are outrageous), but as the core principle of politics . . . which can become the poisonous inquisitorial dynamic of call-out culture, a kind of in-group purity code reminiscent of Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger.

Politics in this vein becomes the act of calling out — its acolytes in search of sinners to accuse and thereby demonstrate their own evolved superiority. This backhanded virtue-signalling is not only ineffective, it drives away the very people we might want to convert (unless we never really wanted to convert in the first place).

Right now, there is a growing social democratic movement that for the first time in decades has a viable (very viable — as of now, Sanders is the strongest by a light year) Presidential candidate, which, combined with demographic trends, promises to get stronger and stronger . . .

. . . against a broader and more terrifying backdrop of financial ruin, eco-catastrophe, and degenerative authoritarianism in response to the dislocations of this manifold crisis. The clock is running, and each day the heavy lifting of whatever course we plot to get out of this mess becomes a little heavier.

Within that movement, there are those of us who see social democratic reforms (Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, etc.) as a transitional ramp (breathing space) to get to the ultimate solution to the general crisis, which is a fundamental redefinition of property and pulling the plug on the power of the business class.

Speaking for myself, the only feasible way forward is through this social democratic mass movement (which can transition into a more radical formation with patience and discipline), so the immediate objective becomes social democrats and socialists winning in electoral politics. Unless you want civil war, whereupon the left will be annihilated.

So I’m not arguing for civility when I say what I am about to say, but for smarts.

In numbers, we are not quite as big as the Trump cult (he’s down to about 30 percent); and we are not as affluent as our opposition within the Democratic Party establishment. We haven’t made our case yet, either, among the majority of that larger (and diverse) body of so-called independents. But what we do have, which has thrown the establishment for a loop, is the end-run of social media, which many of us, especially the younger cohort, use to great effect . . . and quite creatively, I might add.

But social media has some traps, and one of those traps is the courage of anonymity. People get really brave on social media, to the point of taking on fictional badass personae, and beginning to sound like TV tough guys, throwing around pithy one-liners and personal insults and the ALL CAPS SHOUTING in ways they would never . . . not in the real world of flesh and blood. We become enamored of our own bold rhetoric, and the desire to triumph and punish begins to eclipse any desire to persuade . . . if ever that was on the radar.

It should be. It better be.

Now, one of the hallmarks of basic smarts — the kind we have to use in real life — is learning to recognize when one’s own emotions might engender the desire to do something stupid, then learning not to submit to that inappropriate and potentially destructive desire.

Once upon a time, this exercise of self-restraint was indicative of something called maturity, but the consumer pop-culture of Mine-More-Now hates maturity . . . or any other form of restraint, because desire production and a cultivated lack of restraint is necessary to sell more and newer commodities. And they’ve trained us all like Cocker spaniels. This makes calls for restraint a more “epistemologically arduous task,” but there it is.

Tactically, lack-of-restraint falls on the deep-stupid end of the stupid scale, for the same reason unrestrained aggression works to the advantage of the judo master. She uses the opponent’s strength and aggression against him. And that is what will happen to us every time we react without thinking during the coming months while debating on social media.

We’ll get judo-thrown.

Many provocations are designed to do exactly that.

When you lose your head, you are easier to throw.

The reason military operations, for example, are effective (when they are) is discipline . . . no loose cannons. The key to organizational discipline is individual self-discipline. If you’re serious about your fight, learn a soldierly self-discipline. Self-discipline will insulate you from stupid. It’s the only thing that can.

Here are a few rules to help. All involve civility, but in this case “tactical” civility, or what might be called simply “smarts.”

ONE: Never ever ever ever ever, even if provoked by personal attacks, use personal attacks against your opponents. There is everything to lose, and nothing to be gained. It is better to disengage than retaliate; and it is best to point out the illogic of personal attack, then return to the content of the debate with well-researched, strong evidence. You do not talk about their mamas or tell them they are idiots; but you remain maddeningly reasonable, gentle even . . . which is how you get her or him to make mistakes.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.

— Proverbs 25:21–2

The real contest is between the candidates, not you and your facebook/twitter debate partner. Your job is not to win. You winning (as in what? Who gets the best dig in?) is not the same as your candidate winning . . . and it could contribute to you candidate losing. Your job is to convert, so that your candidate can win . . . and someday we can all work together again for the common good. That is far harder . . . and it requires discipline.

Don’t retaliate. Don’t try to dominate. And especially . . . do not humiliate. People will forgive you attacking them with a ball bat quicker than they will forgive being humiliated. Humiliation is the key to building a powerful lifelong enemy. As awful as they might seem to you, your mission — if you want your candidate elected — is to maximize the number of people you can persuade to your side.

You are not trying to win, you are trying to convert.

TWO: Never use racist, sexist, ageist, ablest, homophobic insults to refer to third parties when arguing with your debate partner. Let’s say, it’s Clinton or Harris, both, to my mind, neoliberal political opportunists who happen to be women.

Boys! Are you listening? If you are about to send something with words like “bitch,” “witch,” “harridan,” etc., go stand on your head and count to ten, then delete it. You just gave your opponent the stick with which to beat you . . . oh, and you insulted all women in the process. Don’t do that shit. The same thing with calling anyone someone’s bitch, or talking about bitch-slapping, and the like. No!

You are not trying to win, you are trying to convert.

THREE: Do not use body-shaming, sex-shaming, prison rape jokes (associating sex with revenge and violence), or the metaphor of prostitution. Your attack will hit all sorts of other people . . . collateral damage. Calling someone a corporate whore, etc., might be somehow emotionally satisfying, but it perpetuates a sexist trope that make women — who are generally victims who are prostituted (by men) — the heavy in your narrative . . . blaming victims. Calling people prostitutes as an insult is, given the actual history of prostitution (mostly the sexual exploitation of women by men), a sexist insult that hits women generally.

You are not trying to win, you are trying to convert.

FOUR: Check everything you re-post. Check for the date. Check for the source. Check the “About” window on the website from which the piece came. If it’s out of date, be sure what it says is still true. If the source turns out to be sketchy, hold off on send. Try to find another source that confirms the piece. Snopes is your friend. Fact check, fact check, fact check.

You are not trying to win, you are trying to convert.

FIVE: Look for common ground. Children, our affection for children, and our concern with children is nearly universal. Not theoretically, but in our actual lives. Everyone cares for children, and often in a most caring way. This is common ground. Health issues are common ground. Ask about children and the health of your opponent, and see if you can personalize the space, with an eye to opening that space into one where conversion can happen. Sports, who cares . . . common ground, not theoretical, put personal. And water. Everyone needs water. Common ground.

It’s the best you can do. And when you are met with more hostility or sheer pigheadedness, then kick the dust off your feet on their doorsteps as your only rebuke, and walk away. You have cast pearls before swine . . . and what does a swine know about pearls? You do not need the last word. Little children need the last word. We are mature. We know how to quietly walk away.

SIX: I violate every one of these rules, or have in the past. Sometimes, we just screw it up. So number six is, Admit mistakes promptly, apologize and mean it, and be prepared to accept admissions and apologies from others. Forgive yourself, and move one. Forgive others, and move on.

But more than rules . . .

I was talking earlier today with my friend, Will Garcia, and we were discussing tactical agility — a subject I squeak and flap about all the time like a frustrated Kassandra. The key to tactical agility is blinding your opponent, “flying into the sun,” so to speak, then taking advantage of the confusion that leads your opponent to respond to your initiative, instead of vice-versa. Becoming pro-active instead of re-active.

That is what provocation does. And that is why the central discipline we are promoting here today is “Keep your cool!

The moment you re-act (as opposed to pulling back, assessing, and crafting a tactical response), you opponent has infiltrated your decision cycle, and you are reduced to ever-more-incoherent reactions.

A boxer I knew once said he always tried to land the first punch on the nose, because it pissed his opponent off and brought tears to his eyes. I’m not promoting pugilism . . . quite the contrary, but you see the point.

He was provoking them to lose their cool . . . and oh, mess up their vision. We need analogs.

Interplanetary communication

Bruno Latour says that we come from seven planets. He’s one of those Continental philosopher people, French, in fact, whose allusions can seem a little translucent to us, so forgive how obscure these may sound. His seven planets stand for metaphysical perspectives: Global means universalizers, exemplars of modernity and its sureness of itself. Planetary means a belief that Nature is a thing (apart from humanity), Escape is the perspective of Elon Musk, e.g. — we will meet catastrophe with a few escapees who will colonize space or something. Identity is the dominant metropolitan planet/perspective, a knock-on effect of the uprootedness of modernity (cosmic homelessness) — older ways of belonging having disappeared, people seek out affinity through identity, because humans need to belong. The World perspective is radical technological optimism — a belief in the infinite potential of technology to solve all problems (conquest of nature stuff). The Contemporary perspective is that of disorientation and irony, and a certain rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. The last perspective is Terrestrial, meaning based on an understanding of the world as thoroughly interpenetrated — which privileges our relationship to land.

Now, I’ve probably misrepresented, or at least vastly oversimplified, Latour’s schema; but the point is, every person is from one of several metaphysical planets. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his pivotal After Virtue, said we are unable in modern (capitalist) bureaucratic-individualist society to resolve our disputes. The belief that all moral claims are ultimately just a personal preference has led us into debates that can never be solved, because our arguments are based on completely incommensurable premises. People are from these different planets. If we want to communicate more effectively, we have to identify which planet they are from, and have learned something about that planet.

When we’ve done all that to the best of our ability, and we are feeling tired and confused, and we need a simple formula to explain to ourselves why we bother, try this one. You have three groups: Your group, your opposite group, and a group in the middle. We can call them left, right, and center. Isolate the right, consolidate the left, and win over from the center.

Isolate the right, consolidate the left, and win over from the center.

Win over . . . not win. Persuade.


Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” “Tough Gynes,” and “Smitten Gate.”