On civility

I wrote a post today about David Brooks’ silly column in the New York Times. I know Brooks divorced recently and thought about including that in the piece, but decided against it. Instead, I brought up his $4 million home. I think it is worthwhile to know what might motivate someone to believe things, and being fabulously wealthy is surely such a motivation.

In response, Reihan Salam said on twitter that this was an ad hominem and also that Brooks does not live there anymore because of his divorce. As a side matter, this is not an ad hominem. Nobody seems to realize what that Latin phrase refers to. An argument is an ad hominem if it has the form: because X has personal trait Y, they are wrong about Z. I do not do that. Brooks’ wrongness about Z is demonstrated on the merits through the use of public reason. It does not rely upon his personal trait Y (here being rich).

In response to this claim, I tweeted out a correction emphasizing that Brooks’ moral degeneracy (which I can only assume, from his own writings, caused his divorce) has caused him to no longer live in his $4 million house. This is a jab at David Brooks and conservatives like him who like to blame the poverty of poor divorced people on their divorce, which is also attributed to a decline in values, morals, and our social fabric. He is a hypocrite basically.

Salam’s reaction, tweeted to Steve Waldman, indicated that he thought I lacked grace and civility.

But this whole episode has got me thinking about civility in a broader sense, especially within the realm of public discourse. This is not the first time it has been suggested that I have been uncivil towards someone. I received criticism for calling Ezra Klein an admitted fuck-up in my response to his piece that inequality is not that big of a deal. I received criticism for calling Nicholas Kristof an irresponsible moron and half-conscious jackal in my response to his piece arguing that SSDI was riddled with welfare cheats and parents intentionally retarding the educational development of their kids. And so on.

Curious Civility
While I have doubtlessly written things in the past that were probably not called for, it is also the case that the civility radars of those who run in these public discourse circles are curiously calibrated.

Take the David Brooks situation for example. This is a man who regularly writes apologia for poverty that are just poor people blaming. His columns are designed to reach the conclusion that we can’t cut poverty in the country (we easily can) by basically saying poor people are moral degenerates who cannot behave themselves.

These columns are not tagged as uncivil, certainly not by the pearl-clutchers who come at me. Yet if you turn it around right on David Brooks, it becomes uncivil somehow. Is this because Brooks accuses entire swaths of nameless, faceless, unknown people of this moral degeneracy that justifies their impoverishment while I am accusing a known human being with a column and picture? Is it because David Brooks is humanized and therefore we concretely consider how much emotional pain it might cause him if he knew that someone was taking a run at him for getting a divorce?

I submit that this is exactly it. Brooks gets to be a human being whose psychic pain is worthy of concern while the masses of poor people are just a faceless group of people that rich, elite, high-socioeconomic-status pundits have little to no intimate connection with. Would David Brooks ever stand in front of a poor divorced single mother and say to her the shit he writes in columns about her? There is no way in hell. Why? Because that would be disrespectful and uncivil, unless of course you do it in print and publish it out to the whole world, at which point it is just an opinion and respectable policy view.