On civility, again

I’ve already written this post actually. But I am going to write it again. I suspect I will write it many more times before everything is said and done.

Here is the back story. Megan McArdle wrote a horrific piece at Bloomberg View in which she concern-trolled that making poor people unpoor will not eliminate other pains they might have (e.g. relationship, status, and so on). This is part of the new Paul Ryan right-wing that pretends to care about poor people only as far as to say that we shouldn’t design our distributive institutions so as to guarantee their material security.

I then mocked this ridiculous take, pointing out that material security is a plus no matter who you are and what other unpleasantness you have to deal with. I furthered that McArdle should know all about this because she has experienced severe economy-driven unpleasantness while still being materially secure:

You would think McArdle, of all people, should know all about this. She was a spectacular failure at being in business even though she had all sorts of family money and pedigree and cultural and social capital. I am sure when she failed at it, she felt real bad. She felt real bad even though her failure did not cause her to suffer the pains of material deprivation and insecurity. I guarantee you though that she would have felt even worse if that put her out on the street or left her with no money in her account and two hungry kids to feed.

Tears were shed over this insight on the Twitter, which prompted me to painstakingly explain how this paragraph works in the piece. The short of it is that it serves as an example of my point: lots of people experience misery from the economy, but material security is a plus to those people. I am sure failing caused McArdle to feel quite bad, but is there any doubt that if these events had thrown her into poverty or homelessness (as they do many others) that she would have felt much worse? I don’t think so.

Now, quite hilariously, I find myself accused of being uncivil, or a jerk, or an asshole. And this brings us to our point.

What Is Civility?
As I mentioned at the top, I’ve tackled this question before in the context of discussing David Brooks alleged divorce. Parroting Brooks’ voluminous commentary on the matter of divorce, I had opined that perhaps he was deeply morally degenerate and a cause of poverty in society. This was deemed uncivil by those in the write-things-on-internet class, prompting my probing the question of why they thought it was so uncivil:

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.

As with the David Brooks debacle, I have treated Megan McArdle in my piece no different than she treats poor people in her piece. Here is McArdle:

Writing a check will let a high-school dropout sit at home with her three children, but it will not make her employable at something better than McDonald’s. It will not create a more hopeful future for those children.

To which I reply: being a rich kid of rich parents will let Megan McArdle avoid experiencing the pains of hunger and insolvency, but it will not protect her from being a complete human failure at business. It doesn’t save her from her inadequacy and incompetence at the thing she spent many years trying to accomplish, and something she so lionized as akin to greatness that she called herself Jane Galt of all things. It wont do that. She will suffer the humiliation and embarrassment among her peers, friends, and family even though she has her material well-being secured.

What exactly is the difference between what I am doing and what McArdle is doing? Is it that the hypothetical poor person is this faceless human being that nobody in the elite pundit class has ever actually known and that therefore their internal feelings and humanity can be tossed about in some half-assed psychoanalytical effort to theorize their needs and dreams? Meanwhile, McArdle is a concrete human being in your circle whose humanity is present on your mind as she’s being torn through in my concrete example for my pro-material-security argument?

Of course that is the reason. The media is full of children of privilege who have never meaningfully known someone from the class of people they so often say horrific things about. To read the daily internet happenings on poverty in the US is to basically just watch a parlor game of elites opine in extremely “uncivil” ways about the plight of people that they don’t afford any dignity, humanity, or decency. But because everyone in the media is upper class, they gloss over this stuff without even noticing it.

I don’t though. The same anger you feel when I run down McArdle and her plight as an example for my pro-material-security argument is the way I feel when she runs down poor people and their plight as an example for her anti-material-security argument. If you get hot over my usage of McArdle here, but not over her usage of poor fast food workers, you should ask yourself why that is. Are you against incivility itself or are you against incivility towards those in your in-group who you actually contemplate as a real live human being?