In Defense of Civility

In the seventies, I was working in Silicon Valley when email became ubiquitous on business’ campuses.  Although email simplified office communication, I noticed two negative aspects: email discouraged face-to-face interaction and it facilitated uncivility.  On January 8th, Twitter — email’s progeny –suspended Donald Trump’s account.  This was a welcome, although belated, defense of civility.

As a computer technologist — since the sixties — I’ve become used to the dual-edge of technological progress: each new advance, in some regard, makes our life easier; on the other hand, each advance has unsavory side effects.  The first computers simplified the keeping of financial records but also eliminated the jobs of many bookkeepers.  In business, the invention of email made day-to-day communication easier, but email made these conversations less personal and, in some cases, more abrasive.  (It wasn’t long after I started using email that I first became aware of the email “flamer;” an angry, accusatory, or disparaging email — someone saying something digitally that they would never say in person.)

Often, technological progress has political consequences.  Political historians note that Adolph Hitler’s rise was facilitated by his use of the (then) new technology of radio.  Donald Trump’s political rise was facilitated by his use of Twitter.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Twitter — a quick, convenient form of social networking.  Unfortunately, like email, it facilitates uncivility.

Twitter was the perfect social media outlet for Trump because he has a short attention span and is (famously) uncivil.  The dictionary definition of “civil” is to be cultured, courteous, and polite.  Donald Trump is none of these things.  Donald doesn’t thank people or give them compliments; he criticizes and disparages.  Trump disdains conciliation and compromise; his idea of negotiation is “my way or the highway.”

Donald Trump loved Twitter.  When irritated by something, Trump used Twitter to instantly respond; from July 20, 2020, until January 8, 2021, Donald sent 5993 tweets.  Many flamers.  Many lies.  (In October, the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/22/president-trump-is-averaging-more-than-50-false-or-misleading-claims-day/ ) noted that Trump was averaging 50 lies per day.)   On a daily basis, Donald broadcast his uncivility.

The lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” was facilitated by Trump’s tweets.  On January 6th, the insurrectionists that stormed the US Capitol were egged on by Trump’s tweets.  The nature of American political dialogue has been been massively influenced by Trump’s tweets; this discourse has become coarser and more partisan.

Civility matters.  (Truth matters.)  Civility is the moral framework for “civil society,” without which Democracy cannot function.  Civility is the heart; civil society is the circulatory system.

Twitter amplified Trump’s uncivility. Therefore, I support Twitter’s suspension of Donald Trump’s account.  Of course, there is a “free speech” aspect of their decision.  Nonetheless, Trump’s recent conduct — particularly his lies about the 2020 election — meet the constitutional definition of prohibited speech: “that which would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action.”  Equally important is the notion that, as President of the United States, Donald Trump should not have been using his “bully pulpit” to foment uncivility — he should not have been undermining democracy.

Donald Trump’s preferred style is to be uncivil.  Trump’s presidency was an expression of the insurgent wish to “blow up” Washington.  Donald railed against Washington “elites” and promised to “drain the swamp.”  He bragged about not being a politician, of bringing a different perspective into the oval office.  Trump advertised himself as a political insurgent.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking at national politics from a different point of view.  It’s true that there are Washington elites, who often do not promote the best interests of the American people but rather the power and fortune of the wealthy.  Many Trump supporters voted for Donald because they truly believed that he would shake up Washington; that he would foment a populist revolution that would improve the life circumstances of his supporters.  He didn’t do that during his term in office.

Donald Trump was unsuccessful because he was pathologically self absorbed.  The Trump presidency was not an era of finding new ways to promote the people’s best interests but rather finding ways to promote Trump’s interests.  Donald practiced the ultimate “bait and switch.”  He promised to “drain the swamp” but instead became the swamp; raised self-dealing to an art form.  Trump promised to “end American carnage” but instead promoted violence with attacks on the press, people-of-color — most everyone other than white men — and political dissidents.  Ultimately, Trump’s rhetoric promoted the January 6th insurrection.

With his uncivility, Donald blew up “political correctness” and replaced it with anger, insults, and lies.  He demeaned gentility.  He normalized what had previously been viewed as unacceptable behavior.

Now is the time to step back from the abyss.  Now is the time to defend civility.