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?

A Moral Exemplar?

To my surprise, the National Review has a piece arguing that Brandeis was right to disinvite Ayaan Hirsi Ali from their commencement ceremonies. In fact, a whole panel was assembled to defend Brandeis on this front. Here are some of the highlights, with each block of text from a different author:

The invitation to deliver a commencement address, especially when coupled with the award of an honorary degree, is not a neutral act. It’s an act by which an institution of higher learning says, “This is a life worth emulating according to our understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful.”


When a university invites anyone to its campus to present a commencement address, it honors the person chosen. Likewise, the invitation itself indicates what the inviting institution thinks of itself, of what it, as an institution, considers to be worthy of honor. Some people would not be invited; others would not accept. Those invited do not accept every invitation. When they do accept, they indicate that it is worth their while to give the said address and receive the said honor. Clearly, some things are incompatible with honor, others are incompatible with truth, the purpose of a university.


The word “perfidy” derives from the Latin “perfidus,” that is, “faithless” or “detrimental to faith”; it is also synonymous with “treachery,” or “violation of allegiance or trust.” [Brandeis’] decision to honor [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] as its commencement speaker in May is perfidious and treacherous in the extreme.


Imagine [Brandeis] university in the 1960s awarding a segregationist politician an honorary doctorate. This would have been an outrage — giving [institutional] cover to someone who denied the equal rights and fundamental equal dignity of a whole class of human beings.


[Brandeis’] decision to publicly honor [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] at this time is not simply inconsistent with the university’s mission — although it certainly is that. It is not simply wrong — although it is that, too. It is a scandal and an outrage, which is why we launched [a petition]. Already more than 10,000 rightfully angry [people] agree.


I can see some good reasons for [Brandeis] to invite [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] to give a speech. Free inquiry, open discussion, vigorous debates — that’s what universities do. And [Jewish] universities do it very well, because unlike most universities, they don’t censure conservatives.

But a commencement address? It’s not an academic event of intellectual exchange and debate. It’s entirely and richly symbolic.

Oh wait, I am sorry. I became woefully mixed up. This was about when conservatives were mad that Obama was giving the commencement address at Notre Dame.

Once again, nobody is motivated by these kinds of arguments. They adopt them whenever they cohere with their short-term substantive preferences. Those who don’t like Obama’s views on abortion have soaring rhetorical arguments for why it is really out of place to have him speak at a commencement address, despite his other obvious accomplishments. Conservatives, either because they share the same substantive views or tribal affiliation, find those arguments super-persuasive, at the time.

When the substance of the dispute and the tribal commitments flip on their head, then everyone switches sides, as we now see with Ali.

What’s surprising is that anyone even bothers with pretending otherwise. I guess you got to fill out your copy one way or another.

Trigger Warning: Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Jenny Jarvie has a piece in The New Republic about trigger warnings, the phenomenon in which people warn others that the content of some piece might trigger emotional trauma for certain people. The author does not like them, bemoans their spread to college classes, and thinks there is no logical stopping point once you begin to provide them.

I can’t get too worked up one way or another about the idea of providing warning. The troubling issue is not the demand for warnings; rather, it is using the possibility of triggering to demand that some idea not be uttered at all. I had this happen to me last week in a way that I thought was somewhat amusing, and which I hope will illuminate my point.

The context is that the super-rich Beacon Hill residents of Boston are refusing to put in amenities like curb cut-outs that would make the area accessible to the handicapped. The neighborhood commission refused to do so because “they believed, among other things, that the bumpy plastic strips would mar the neighborhood’s Colonial-era character.”

I commented somewhat half-jokingly, but also somewhat seriously that:

I am against character and would vote to tear down beacon hill and put up housing project towers, but that’s just me.

This was the totally genuine response I was met with:

Matt, that’s not a joke – tearing down antiquities is what Maoist zealots in Cultural Revolution did and that was a tremendous loss for China (where I am from). Saying things like this is a trigger for people like my dad

If the concept of triggers prevents someone from saying we should replace a bunch of single-family homes occupied by the super-rich in the core of an expensive, heavily-populated city with high-rise, affordable housing because those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution might be disturbed, I’d say it has probably been taken too far.