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April 01, 2005

sticks and stones ...

Civility is important. When public figures attack individuals and their motives rather than ideas and policies, they can make it harder to work together--even on completely unrelated issues. Furthermore, politics as a whole can become unpleasant, in which case some citizens will avoid participating.

Tom DeLay and his friends have certainly not been "civil" in their response to the Schiavo case:

'The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today,' said Mr. DeLay. .. Saying that the courts 'thumbed their nose at Congress and the president,' Mr. DeLay, of Texas, suggested Congress was exploring responses and declined to rule out the possibility of Congressional impeachment of the judges involved. [...] Dr. James C. Dobson, the founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, said the judges who would not stop the removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube were 'guilty not only of judicial malfeasance' but of the cold-blooded, cold-hearted extermination of an innocent human life."

I am not going to defend these statements, but I will propose some reasons not to take them overly seriously.

First, although civility is desirable, it is not always possible. Politics is infused with life-and-death issues, and people on all sides of the debate have principled reasons to hold their opponents guilty of killing. DeLay, Dobson, and their allies think that judges killed Terri Schiavo. Many of my friends and colleagues believe that George W. Bush has "cold-bloodedly" and "cold-heartedly" sent American soldiers and Iraqi civilians to their deaths. When the Environmental Protection Agency sets an allowable level of pollution, it recognizes that x people in 1,000 will die as a result. Yet if it were to choose a lower level, possibly jobs would be lost and people would die from the resulting stress, crime, and suicide. Cuts in health spending may cause people to die. Certainly the electric chair kills.

This list is not meant to make light of any of the accusations that people make against judges, President Bush, Congress, or the EPA. Some of the charges are valid, and it's important to decide which are fair and which are not. At the same time, it's inevitable that political antagonists will see their opponents as guilty of homicide. We can't expect them to keep their beliefs secret, yet we must be able to live together in a peaceful polity.

Perhaps we should try to enhance civility by creating appropriate forums for moderated discussions, teaching young people to deliberate about serious issues--and marginalizing the likes of James Dobson. But ultimately, we need stronger measures than good manners and habits of deliberation. For example, federal judges are protected by life tenure. They should recognize that this privilege exists precisely because the elected branches of government are likely to lash out at them from time to time. Their responsibility is to ignore the taunts and keep doing their jobs. If Tom DeLay really tries to impeach them, he is likely to fail humiliatingly in his own House. And if he drops the threat, then the judiciary has won.

Besides, civility involves a tradeoff. On one hand, angry personal accusations can alienate people who want to participate in pleasant, constructive political discussions. On the other hand, passionate accusations can mobilize citizens. Thus, in 2004, when charges of genocide and treason were being flung around on all sides, we saw the highest turnout since 1968 (also a year when rhetoric reached a boiling point). I don't like the current rhetorical temperature, myself, but I don't want to be fastidious or thin-skinned. Although threats may cause violence, I'm not convinced that Tom DeLay's rhetoric has added to anyone's physical endangerment. We shouldn't quickly label rhetoric as dangerous, because then anyone who accused Bush of "murdering" Iraqis would have to be seen a threat to the president.

Posted by peterlevine at April 1, 2005 01:10 PM

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