The Civility Diversion and Justificatory Closure

January 15, 2011

Balloon Juice has a really nice post that, I think, buries its insights a wee too deep in the weeds. Here’s a cut:

The reason that hundreds of angry people came to town hall meetings in my Congressional district in 2009, and the reason that police had to be present where they had never been before, wasn’t because someone was “uncivil”. It was because their media heroes and party leaders told them a pack of lies about death panels, federal funding for abortions, Medicare being taken away and free insurance for illegal immigrants. The questions that my Congressman took at those hate-filled meetings weren’t reasonable queries about limited government, deficits and healthcare outcomes. They were questions about why he wanted to kill grandma, let the government pay to abort babies, and take away Medicare.

Here’s my attempt at translation.

Palin, Beck, and the rest of the banshees have been engaged, for years now really, in a project of deception that implicates politicians in the disintegration of the fabric and soul of America (whatever the hell that is). They have told all manner of untruths to make their point, and in making this point, have either explicitly or implicitly stated that the guilty politicians must be stopped or taken out. They use guns and gun sights and invoke the revolutionary war and the second world war to underscore the extent of their dissatisfaction. They continue to do it. “If those wars were justified,” they imply, “the only natural conclusion is that this current fight, and the side that represents the side of the good, the side we’re on, is also justified.”

A prevailing presupposition, then, is that war and violence and assassination are sometimes justified. Such acts are justified, for instance, in cases like the revolutionary and the second world war. I think many people agree with this. Certainly, many self-respecting Americans agree with this. (Others, perhaps, not so much.)

It is one thing to argue that a position is justified, yet another to imply that violence in the promotion or defense of that position is justified.

Click on the jump for more…

What, then, would make the situation of today parallel with cases in which acts of war and violence and assassination are justified (or, at least, presumed to be justified)? Clearly, the situation of today would be parallel when the conditions on the ground are parallel. BJ seems to think that the problem is that the showmen and entertainment banshees have shoe-horned the facts into their tight little justificatory box. I can’t say I disagree with him; but some might.

There is precious little, fact or fantasy, that enables the drawing of these parallels. There is no standing army. There is no invading army. There is no taxation without representation. There is no Holocaust, no genocide, no persecution, no incarceration, no ghetto. There is only legitimate democratic disagreement between two or more opposing viewpoints. The only way to make the parallel is to deceptively paint the parallel, to embellish, to make it appear as though we are now currently in a state of civil unrest, that the walls of civilization are crumbling around us, that there are death panels and terrorists and anti-american cabals of Communists and Nazis and gun-hating, freedom-loathing, Constitution-disregarding, globalwarming-fearing, tax-and-spend, immigrant waffle-stompers; that we must rise and revolt or be quashed.

Unfortunately, those most susceptible to this jagged line of reasoning are those who are not keen to dig out the facts, those who are quick to make sloppy inferences, those who are not particularly good at careful thinking. In short, those who are most susceptible are those who are cognitively vulnerable in some such way…like Jared Loughner. You don’t have to demonstrate causal responsibility to show moral culpability. See my last post for more on this.

The civility diversion, as dubbed by BJ, suggests that what’s wrong with the absurd positioning of the Tea Party is not, as some would have it, a problem with civility, but with manufacturing the truth and connecting false dots, closing the epistemic circle such that violence, and other behaviors ill-suited to a constitutional democracy, appear justified. They appear justified because they link up with a unique sort of mythology about justified revolution and violence. Call it “justificatory closure.”

Which is all to say that the objection of the Left to the kvetching of the Right isn’t that the talking heads say nasty things about their opponents, but that the Partiers and Palinites and Beck-worshippers unreflectively adopt the position that violent (or forceful, or tactical, or politico-strategic) interventions are justified under such-and-such conditions. They are led by the nose to believe that those conditions are met. What the denizens on the high pedestals of the Tea Party don’t do, and what they refuse to do, is raise or address the deeper philosophical questions of when one is justified in loading a gun.

Calls for civility are just a diversion, as Balloon Juice notes, diverting attention away from the deception, the embellishing, the falsities and lies. That all seems correct. But I think that’s only a small part of it. From my vantage, calling attention to the lies, as so many on the Left often do — most of the blogging in the left-leaning blogosphere is oriented around “getting the facts right,” being a “proud member of the reality-based community” — actually creates a different sort of diversion. The problem isn’t merely with the facts. It’s with the inferences and implications, with the short-circuiting of the justificatory process.

Mark Rudd, former member of the Weather Underground says it pretty nicely, without calling it justificatory closure:

I considered myself an agent of necessity in a political revolution. I’m not sure if Loughner, who seems to suffer from mental illness, can be considered an agent of anything. But I’m sure that if, as alleged, he pulled the trigger, he had convinced himself that he was doing what needed to be done.

At his age, I had thought myself into a similar corner. My willingness to endorse and engage in violence had something to do with an exaggerated sense of my own importance. I wanted to prove myself as a man – a motive exploited by all armies and terrorist groups. I wanted to be a true revolutionary like my guerrilla hero, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. I wanted the chant we used at demonstrations defending the Black Panthers to be more than just words: “The revolution has come/Time to pick up the gun!”

As the Weather Underground believed in the absolute necessity of bombs to address actual moral grievances such as the Vietnam War and racism, Loughner might have believed in the absolute necessity of a Glock to answer his imagined moral grievances. Violent actors in this country – whether James Earl Ray, Timothy McVeigh or Scott Roeder, who in 2009 killed a Kansas abortion provider – are always armed not just with weapons, but with the conviction that their grievances demand satisfaction and their violence is righteous.

So here, I’ll say it. Go for it. Shout down your opponents. Get in nasty scrapes and arguments over ideas and numbers and facts and theory. Be uncivil. Call people names, if you must. It’s cathartic. That’s all fine and well. That’s to be expected in a democracy. Academics do it all the time.

But be clear about what actions are justified and what are not justified. In our constitutional democracy, violence is almost entirely out of bounds. There are circumstances, to be sure, when violence may be called for, but these are far from they. Etching “You Lie” on an AR-15 implies indirectly, if not states directly, that violence is warranted. Hosting a political rally in which you can shoot an M-16 with Giffords’ political opponent in order to help remove Giffords from office implies if not states that violence is warranted. As does calling for “second amendment remedies,” or drawing gun sights over a political target. This is out of bounds.

What is out of bounds is not the calling of names, but the short-circuiting of the justificatory project; the false implication that some such state of affairs is so heinous that it alone justifies violence against a proponent of that view.

That is what is terrifying about the rhetoric. Not the lies. And not the uncivil behavior.

One comment

  1. Leaving aside the issue of “Second Amendment” rhetoric, what’s really interesting about all of this right-wing hysteria (Obama is a socialist, etc.) is that it’s roughly matched by all of the left-wing hysteria over Bush (the Patriot Act was fascist, etc.). The two parties have never been more alike on most fundamental issues of government, but it seems that the hardcore believers on both sides have never been more convinced that the other side is about to institute the gulags just because of a slight difference of opinion on how to structure Medicare or where to put military prisoners (in Guantanamo or in some other CIA prison).

    See http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/01/what-do-we-disagree-about-when-we-debate-public-policy/

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