Short Take: Civility or Surrender?

At the National Review, David French responds to a criticism by Milo that he doesn’t have the guts for the fight.

Maintaining an even temperament and avoiding overstatement and invective can improve our political discourse. America’s two great ideological tribes are in the midst of a similar conflict. It’s the battle over civility, and all too often reason, compassion, and grace are on the losing side. On the left, aggressive social-justice activists scorn engagement and dialogue as “respectability politics” and instead favor the shout-down, the boycott, and the online shame campaign.

I often find myself disagreeing with French, even though I admire his intellect, and I do so again right out of the box. What’s an “even temperament”? Who decides? The answer is somewhat obvious. We all use the words with which we’re comfortable, that apply our own sensibilities. But different people have different comfort levels.

Calling it a “battle of civility” is about applying your sensibilities to other people than yourself. The tone police. The civility police. Call it what you will, it’s just another way of saying other people who don’t share your level of refinement are being uncivil. Sniff. So why is someone as smart, and civil, as French rationalizing the propriety of tone policing?

On the right, online pugilists mock more mainstream or “establishment” conservatives as unwilling to do what it takes to win. They mock conservatives who refuse to make Trump-style attacks and decry Trump-style rhetoric as obsessed with “muh principles.” In the face of a ferocious Left, we just don’t have what it takes — or, as Milo Yiannopoulos said earlier this week in a long piece calling me “the most reliably frustrating person in conservative media,” we’re more prepared to “lose gracefully” than to “be seen as lacking in manners.”

He got smacked by Milo as a traitor to the tribe. He let Milo goad him into responding on Milo’s terms rather than his own, which is a shame since, right or wrong, the one thing that French has proven himself to be is a person of principle. Sometimes, principles demand that you concede that the other team has a point. A person of intellectual integrity can’t keep arguing when it becomes clear that he’s run out of reasons, that he’s reached the point of illogic or that his team’s refusal to stop digging just puts them deeper into a hole.

Milo may not have any shame, but French does. And that’s an admirable thing.

But calling it a battle of civility, where “reason, compassion, and grace are on the losing side,” is unfortunately simplistic for a person who usually offers much deeper thoughts. What do you do when your reason butts head with the other team’s feelz, and they won’t adhere to your standard of civility? Does every sad tale demand compassion? Graciousness is a wonderful thing, provided it’s recognized as such and appreciated. What about when it’s seen as weakness, as Milo accuses French?

Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, had an amazing ability to appear gracious as he leveled the most biting of criticism, snark extraordinaire. If one could keep up with his jabs and ripostes, which often took a good deal of processing to appreciate, one would realize just how vicious they were while wrapped in soothing rhetoric. He was an artist.

Milo thinks French is a quitter, willing to surrender the good fight rather than appear impolite? So what? It’s not as if sating Milo’s sensibilities should be the bar French is obliged to meet. Just because Milo will shamelessly keep fighting when he’s on the losing end of reason doesn’t mean his fellow tribesman has to do the same.

No one on either team is constrained to meet the expectations or demands of the lowest common denominator. Maybe the answer to Milo is that he needs to up his game so as not to disgrace himself by rolling in the mud rather than refuse to concede when he’s hit batshit crazy level?

I respect that David French writes as a person of principle, and that his writing reflects his even temperament. But that’s him, and not even French gets to be the civility police for others. Rather than be stung by Milo’s criticism and goaded into rationalizing his manners, his reply should have been “bite me.” But that would have been impolite, even if it would have been acceptable according to my sensibilities, and that’s not David French.

16 comments on “Short Take: Civility or Surrender?

  1. JRP

    Milo is professional screamer but he has a point.

    Mr. French makes the same mistake military leaders make all the time. He is fighting a limited war and the enemy is fighting a total war (and milo and others are running amuck as well) . Rather than change his strategy he tries to convince the enemy to change to meet on his terms or tells his own side what a great job they are doing.

    Worked great in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan..

    1. SHG Post author

      Not sure your war analogy is quite right. If the idea is ultimately to persuade people to agree with you, or disagree with the other guy, rather than kill them, is it really useful to make the other poor schmuck die for his ideology? Is persuasiveness enhanced by screaming, if the content is absurd or hypocritical?

      On the other hand, if the other guy is screaming nonsense at you, are there not time when it’s appropriate to call bullshit, even if it’s not exactly the most compassionate response?

      1. JRP

        When I say war I mean more the stratigic level rather than shooting people in the face.

        Wars at the stratigic level aren’t about killing your adversary and they dont have to be delcared. They are about making your adversary accept your (normally) political idea or conform or at least accept primacy of it. That idea could be that you get all their industry, or that communism is good, or that thier is no god but the flying spaghetti monster (seven meatballs not that weak 4 meatball heresy).

        Preferably you get them to do that without using resorting to “kill that bastard before he kills you”. I think thats why milo referred to Clausewitz in his article though he is a drama queen so I could be giving him to much credit.

        Calling bullshit might have blunted milo’s point. But trying to reason with people who will shut you down rather than have reasoned discourse only works if; you either let your own screaming dogs out (which has risk) or shut down the screamers rather than gradually accepting thier crazy premises (calling bullshit, with the power to enfore it).

        Mr. French spent alot of his life in the military. Historically the education system produces leaders that have the tendency to not reconsider its strategy especially in limited wars facing an enemy who is less powerfull but willing to go farther than you.

        Super long way of saying. Yeah he should have called bullshit and shut down his own sides screamers, but then considered why his strategy isnt working and how to fix it.

        1. SHG Post author

          I see your point better. Whether and how one shuts down the screamers; wrapping himself in civility may feel comfortable to French, but that doesn’t make it an effective, as well as principled, tactic.

  2. Jacob Williams

    I use National Review as a conservative touchstone, because I don’t anyone in my area that’s both conservative and capable of a coherent argument. David French and Jonah Goldberg help ground a side of debate that I don’t often get rational discourse from, and they both like to start their arguments from an ethical standpoint. The other half of the equation is this blog.

    Milo, on the other hand, is only relevant in my experience according to whom he happens to be screaming at that week, which doesn’t say a lot for his character or his content.

    1. SHG Post author

      You should tell David and Jonah. I’m sure they would appreciate knowing. I’m not entirely clear where this blog fits into that paradigm, but then, being pretty clearly antagonistic to progressive and social justice ideology puts me pretty right these days, no matter how left I used to be considered before people lost their shit.

      1. Billy Bob

        I’m not old, I’m just stopping,… I mean shopping. That’s what older folks do best.

      2. PseudonymousKid

        Don’t say “milo” at all. That alone gives him more than he deserves. French should know better, too, I suppose. He seems like more of a shitlord than most though.

  3. Joseph

    There’s nothing wrong with accompanying incisive remarks with pithy insults, but when flinging insults and demonizing the enemy becomes part of standard operating procedure, it becomes increasingly easy for the actual content of those incisive remarks to be lost in a sea of rhetoric. A lot of what passes for discussion these days consists mostly of opposing camps using each other as props to agitate their own camp (salted liberally with alternative facts of all varities) rather than any sort of meeting of the minds, and an overall lack of decorum only contributes further to that style of “debate.”

    Opposition to “Trump-style attacks and Trump-style rhetoric” then isn’t just about tone-policing conversations, or taking spirited debates and reducing them to polite lobotomized shells of their former selves. Part of it is also about trying to get substantive conversation to occur in the first place (presumably between people in the less batshit wings of their respective camps) and trying to restore a national conversation that isn’t characterized entirely by pointless hysteria. Nobody ever convinced an angry person of anything.

    French has a faith in the basic correctness of his facts, and probably would prefer win on reason rather than aesthetics or rhetoric. Whether that position ACTUALLY serves conservative policy interests is still up in the air. But even if conservatives are more likely to win armed primarily with Trumpian aesthetics, rhetoric, and falsehoods-somewhat-resembling-the-truth rather than staid and reasonable arguments, it may not be a price that French thinks is worth paying.

    1. Billy Bob

      “Nobody ever convinced an angry person of anything.”
      Oh really now. Where is your re-search and where are your stats, Mister Know-it-all?
      You cannot just come on here and blow smoke, ya know?
      P.S., I am a v. angery person, but don’t tell that to too many people. Am ready to explode at the drop of,… Trust it. Only me ex-wife knows! And the dog. (The kids are grown, thank god. And don’t come back looking for a handout.)

      1. Joseph

        “Rarely can angry people be convinced they are wrong about the thing they are angry about” would have expressed what I meant more clearly. The idea being that insulting people is more likely to make them mad than to convert them to your viewpoint. Maybe there are people out there who appreciate that kind of thing.

        Next time I’ll say what I mean and mean what I say.

        1. Billy Bob

          Roger that, Joseph. Thanx a bunch for that clarification. No hard feelings, sincerely yours,

        2. SHG Post author

          It’s really very nice to see you and Bill bonding in the comments. La cage aux folles?

          You make one fundamental error in your comment. Conservative isn’t Trump, and Trump isn’t conservative. Trump is Trump, apart from anything resembling intelligent thought. I appreciate that some people can’t distinguish Trump from intelligent thought, but as soon as you introduce Trump into the discussion, you lost your point.

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