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No More Mr. Nice Guy

People across the political spectrum are losing their patience with politeness in trying to direct outcomes they desire, without considering the consequences. 

I’ve been thinking about rudeness, civility, and political causes.

There are some thoughts making their way (back) to the forefront in public life that I’m not so sure we want to promote. And the ideas that I’m talking about I’ve seen on both the left and the right, so this isn’t necessarily a partisan observation, though I know people will try to make it one.

There’s a notion that there is a point at which politeness becomes a hindrance to accomplishing something, and thus must be abandoned. It’s a bit difficult to throw a punch in a mannerly way, or wage war in a polite fashion.

The reasoning goes like this: whatever the target of the rudeness may be doing, it is much too serious to be ‘nice’ about it. Unless you are willing to take the gloves off and violate some social norms, or at least stifle your criticisms of those who are, then on some level you approve of what the target is doing. At the very least, you are abetting it and perpetuating it, says this school of thought.

I have seen examples of this from people defending the closure of roads and the interruption of brunches, from people interrupting representatives speaking at town halls, from people protesting free speech events and booing or walking out of commencement speeches. ‘We have to resist!’

And I have seen it from people defending any number of rude or crude speech or actions taken by folks ostensibly on the right, who categorize the criticism of those ‘unpolished’ pronouncements as being weak, or focusing on minor things like manners when there are serious threats to our freedoms. ‘We have to fight back!’

These aren’t just heat-of-the-moment aberrations from the social norms, either. These are becoming the ‘new normal’ for a number of folks in the political sphere. Between widespread outrage addiction and a growing belief that every election is the most important election in our history, there is always a handy crisis with which to excuse this bout of bad manners. ‘We’ve tried being nice, and it isn’t working, so no more Mr. Nice Guy!’

My question is: how far do we let that go? Especially since manners lubricate social interactions much of the time.

You bump into someone, and so you say ‘excuse me’ and everyone knows that it was unintended and goes on with their day. That’s normal. But what if the bump becomes a cultural weapon, an intentional statement that says ‘I’m not getting out of the way for you; you’ll have to make way for me.’?

Someone opens the door for you and you thank them, because you acknowledge the nice gesture. That’s normal. But what happens when the door-holding is instead characterized as cultural assault and a gesture of sexism?

The minimizing of manners in political settings worries me. It’s exacerbating some of the tribal politics; some tribes try to dehumanize people of other tribes in order to make them – and their views – easier to discount or ignore. It incentivizes division and emphasizes dominance over cooperative problem-solving.
(And if your first reaction to that last sentence was ‘Well, of course, there’s no cooperating with X; X is evil and that perspective must be destroyed, and our view must prevail because it is right,’ then you’re beginning to see how the other side sees you, and why we are so divided.)

Take it to the logical conclusion.

If the other side sees you as evil, then wouldn’t they – shouldn’t they – be doing everything they possibly can to defeat you? Wouldn’t some of them decide that it’s foolish to be mannerly to EVIL? And if they can be rude, what next? Couldn’t they shout you down, or try to shut you up? Wouldn’t they feel pleased if something bad happened to you, because you are evil? And if you are evil, why shouldn’t they try to fight you, thwart you, hurt you, or even kill you? There’s a war on, they’d say, and who has time for being nice to our enemies?

This isn’t exaggeration, not really. We’re nearly there.  This is where this ends up. People will harm you with the approval of their consciences.

That’s a bad outcome for everyone.