Incivility Is Unworthy of an Audience
Published on The Stream March 14, 2019
In a recent column, actress and liberal activist Cynthia Nixon berated Joe Biden for calling Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.” Yes, America, we have come to the point where one public figure actually denounces another for being civil. According to Nixon, Pence is “insidious and dangerous,” and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor to all Democrats.
In order to make her point, Nixon relies upon Pence’s support for the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act when he was governor. She claims this bill “would have allowed LGBTQ discrimination.” What she means is that it would have protected people of faith from being coerced by the state to perform acts that violate their beliefs. Think of the baker being ordered to design a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, or a photographer forced to take photos of the ceremony.
The bill was modeled after the federal law signed by President Clinton back in 1993. It applied a measured approach to religious freedom claims. It didn’t give people of faith carte blanche to “discriminate,” but imposed a balancing test to weigh a law’s burden on a person’s religion against the reason for applying the law. Calling that vile is extreme, to say the least.
Nixon bemoans Pence’s “suggested support for so-called conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. She’s referring to his proposal in 2000 to direct funding for AIDS treatment to agencies that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
Her outrage over this casts doubt on Nixon’s reputation as an advocate for the LGBTQ community. If a member of that group wants to change his or her sexual behavior, how does “advocacy” mean blocking them from getting that help? Pence’s proposal implies empathy and concern for hurting people. Nixon’s outrage over it implies a cult-like need to ensure that no “member” of the LGBTQ community can ever leave it.
She refers to Pence not only as “vile” and “insidious,” but also as “homophobic.” She is angry that he would bar transgender people from military service, and that he would stop funding Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. According to Nixon, the Republican agenda is “hateful.”
Treating Political Opponents As Personal Enemies
Her labels are wrong and unjust. And as I discuss in my new book, Restoring America’s Soul, it is deeply troubling that the tone of our public discussions has come to this. Like so many others, Nixon points to public policies she opposes, and claims that they show malice on the part of those who support them.
She never allows for the possibility that Pence is concerned about the mental health of those trying to change something as central to their personhood as gender. She ignores his concern for the women who are forever scarred by abortion--and the babies who lose their lives to it. She doesn’t consider that there are good reasons--reasons other than “phobia” or “hatred”--for people to believe that society should reserve a special place for unions of one man and one woman.
Instead of doing the harder work of grappling with well-founded convictions that are widely shared by people of good faith the world over, Nixon is content to label it all as hateful and evil. This reveals a warped view of reality, in which everyone who doesn’t ascribe to one’s own policy views is a monster.
This kind of thinking is like poison to our body politic.
What Real Policy Debate Looks Like
Nixon claims that by merely referring to our Vice President as a “decent guy,” Biden has put “politeness over policy.” But a policy debate that lacks basic civility, that is fueled by unbridled passions and prejudices, is not one that will produce good policy. In fact, it is not a proper debate at all. It’s just a mean-spirited yelling match that most people will tune out.
Toward the conclusion of her piece, Nixon declares, “This is not a time for hollow civility. This is a time to fight.” But no one has claimed to want “hollow” civility. What most of us want is the real thing. Seeking to understand the other side. To find what is good in it. To discover the precise points of disagreement and to talk about them with honesty and humility.
We can’t afford to let hysterical voices dominate our public conversation. Of course, the First Amendment protects the rights of angry partisans to call others “evil.” But their unwillingness to acknowledge the basic decency of a fellow human being makes these speakers unworthy of a thoughtful audience.