Over the past week, the News-Gazette‘s Guest Commentary pages have been ablaze with civility content. You know, that thing that Rodney Davis harps on all the time when people call him out for taking away their healthcare or ignoring a pandemic etc.
It started with this guest commentary. This milquetoast “response” followed, which really just agrees with the original commentary. Smile Politely wrote a way better one, imo, which is way more thorough than anything you’ll read in this post or either of the commentaries.
Somewhere in the middle there, Rodney picked up this massive ratio on Twitter, too, lmao:
The thesis of the original commentary, and I wish I was kidding, was that those who espouse conservative views are among one of the most persecuted groups in America. The evidence cited included vague platitudes about “cancel culture.” You’ve seen this before; you know the drill. Smile Politely did a great job explaining why these claims hold so little weight.
But there’s another pretty glaring problem with this civility argument. Ironically, it directly conflicts with one of our most fundamental American rights (and usually a favorite of conservatives): Freedom of Speech
As a crude example:
Anyone can go get an offensive symbol tattooed on their face right now. That is their right if they so choose.
It’s also the right of everyone else to point it out and say it’s bad. It’s the right of employers not to hire that person because of the offensive symbol. It is the right of people to not want to associate with that person or criticize the symbol.
Though the original authors may not want to admit this, Freedom of Speech also (and especially) applies to criticism. The civility argument seeks to mute that, which is, at its core, unconstitutional. No single person is immune from criticism. Nobody.
If you need another example of how this works, here’s a personal one that involves the local paper:
My mom was a professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. She taught there for 30 years, and retired recently. As she was retiring, Governor Bruce Rauner was waging war on state universities; hundreds of EIU employees were among those laid off due to an intentional budget impasse, and immense damage was done to Coles County’s economy.
Like me, my mom likes to write. As this was going on around her, she wrote this column, critical of Governor Rauner, which was published in a bunch of newspapers across the state.
The next week, Jim Dey, a pillar of The News-Gazette, targeted her specifically in a column. He called her naïve in the headline. He used her state employee salary (which he got wrong!) as an ad-hominem way to attack her words. It was distinctly un-civil, but more than that, in this new world where the Gazette posts exclusively civility content, it is deeply and darkly ironic.
But the difference between this response from Jim Dey and what both of the recent Gazette editorials espouse is that the former has the reasonable expectation of free speech, whereas the latter applies the civility argument unevenly.
In a society with free speech, there is an inherent risk in voicing your opinion, full stop. It comes with the territory of publishing anything, as well. My mom knew this when she published her commentary, as did the Gazette commentary authors, as does Jim Dey every time he pens an editorial. Anyone who publishes anything knows that hitting “send” comes with risks.
But even so, the tenets of free speech allow us to critique each other. Jim Dey is allowed to attack my mom in the paper, for example. In turn, I’m allowed to write on here (or say on a podcast) that Jim Dey is an asshole for coming after my mom, the sweetest person on the planet.
I’m not going to get on a soapbox and say that Dey needs to be more civil or shouldn’t be allowed to write. Bring that smoke, James.
If “civility” means not being allowed to respond to what you believe to be wrong, as seems to be the thesis of the original commentary, civility is a bad thing.