The civility debate may be a distraction, but it’s also a symptom of an ideological rift

On the one hand, all the recent talk about a decline in “civility” seems like a distraction from much more important topics, such as the detaining of immigrant families in what amount to internment camps, as Pete Vernon pointed out in yesterday’s newsletter. And yet, the debate continues, with multiple articles and op-ed pieces plumbing the depths of the most obvious hot takes: Namely, a) The decline of civility on the left is a gift to Trump and his supporters, or b) At a time when we are surrounded by literal Nazis bent on destroying the rule of law, asking for civility is like fiddling while Rome is aflame.

Is it because summer is under way, and people are looking for a quick story or column they can polish off before they duck out to catch a baseball game or watch the World Cup? Or is there more to this debate than meets the eye? Probably a combination of both.

The appeal of a hot take on “civility” is fairly obvious for both sides of political sphere. For the left, it’s a way to establish just how serious things have gotten in recent months, as the president has locked up immigrant babies in “tender care” camps and mused publicly about how due process for those seeking asylum is a nuisance, and we should probably get rid of it. At a time like this, how can we realistically get mad at someone for denying Sarah Huckabee Sanders a meal at a restaurant, or at Robert De Niro for swearing at Trump?

On the right, meanwhile, the focus on civility provides a slam-dunk argument that the left has lost its way and is now a pack of drooling jackals. After all, wasn’t it the left who insisted that “when they go low, we go high?” Now they seem just as happy to get down in the muck and sling it anywhere they can. And the fact that the left’s argument amounts to “we can’t be polite because the right are Nazis,” allows conservatives to make the case that liberals have lost the ability to draw distinctions between what Trump is doing and what the Third Reich did. In other words, that the left has become hysterical.

At this point, there seems little chance that either side is going to shift from their position. How could they, when even the man behind Godwin’s Law (the adage that people engaged in an online debate inevitably resort to comparing their opponents to Hitler) has said he is fine with people making that comparison? Even better, civility is such a broad, amorphous, and slightly arcane concept (Does it mean just being polite? Does it forbid criticism of any kind?) that everyone gets to define it however they wish, and to see its absence in almost every form of behavior they would like to criticize.

Here’s more on what may or may not be an unprecedented decline in civility, whatever that is:

  • Normalization: Conservative pundit John Podhoretz argues in Commentary that being rude to Trump and his supporters plays right into their hands. “The point Trump’s opposition fails to grasp is this: By imitating Trump, you are doing exactly what you fear the media are doing,” he writes. “You are normalizing him. You are making this kind of conduct the political baseline for both parties and both ideological tendencies. And let’s face it: You’re just not going to do it as well as Trump does.”
  • Luxury: In The Washington Post, Tom Scocca says civility is “a luxury for pundits,” and that focusing on it completely misses the point of what Trump is doing. “Children, some still in diapers, have been seized from their parents by the government and locked in cages,” he writes. “That situation might seem more urgent, in itself, than the question of how people chose to react to the government seizing children and locking them in cages. Yet here we are, caught up in this fuss over—manners?”
  • Democracy: New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg says the underlying problem in the US isn’t a decline in civility but a decline in democracy, driven in large part by the Trump administration. “There’s a moral and psychic cost to participating in the fiction that people who work for Trump are in any sense public servants,” she writes. “I don’t blame staff members at the Red Hen for not wanting to help Sanders unwind after a hard week of lying to the public about mass child abuse.”
  • Irrelevance: A piece at Vice says the debate over civility is largely irrelevant to left-wing activists, who have lost patience with the polite push-back against the Trump administration’s policies and are looking to step up their protests. “If the president is one of the people refusing to uphold the norms of civil discourse, one could argue, those norms are already dead, buried, and decaying into carbon.” Hamilton Nolan at Splinter, meanwhile, warns that things could get much, much worse.
  • It’s a trap! At Vox, political reporter Matthew Yglesias argues that the debate over civility is just a way for Trump supporters and conservatives in general to drag the media into a trap—a way to tie them up in knots so that they make themselves look bad, and also so they miss more important things that are happening. Or as Yglesias puts it in his headline: “After a ridiculous, days-long, bad-faith debate on civility, can the press manage to learn self-respect?” (Hint: He’s not optimistic).
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Other notable stories:

  • Roberto Lovato writes in CJR about how the recent coverage of immigrants being detained at the border ignores the fact that this kind of treatment has been happening for years, and excludes the voices of those who have been experiencing and writing about it. “Instead, coverage focuses on sometimes-exploitative stories of child victims and their distraught mothers, contains an extraordinary amount of stereotypes, and suffers from a dearth of experts who have dedicated their lives to studying the crisis,” he writes.
  • Three former reporters for The Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper are launching a new online news outlet focused on state policy called the Virginia Mercury. The founders say the new site will be run as a nonprofit, funded by donations, rather than pushing a subscription-based or advertising-based model, and will start out by focusing on areas like the environment, health care, energy, and criminal justice.
  • Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for The Guardian and The Observer, has won the Orwell Prize for political reporting for a series of articles she wrote that broke the story of Cambridge Analytica and how it misused personal data from millions of Facebook users. Cadwalladr wrote about how this data was used to construct profiles that could then be used to target articles on the social network for the benefit of political actors such as the Trump campaign and Britain’s Brexit movement.
  • Editors at The Sacramento Bee say they want to get to the point where the newspaper can exist solely on subscription revenue, which means quadrupling the number of subscribers from 15,000 to 60,000. In order to do that, the paper is experimenting with a range of exclusive features that will be available only to subscribers, including some micro-beats that will only exist for a matter of weeks, an approach based on the process of technology development known as “sprinting.”
  • Charlie Warzel at BuzzFeed argues that social platforms both big and small need to realize that they are becoming weapons in a disinformation war, one that is being carried out through everything from restaurant reviews to retweets. “After years attempting to dodge notions of bias at all costs, Silicon Valley’s tech platforms are up against a painful reality,” Warzel writes. “They need to expect and prepare for the armies of the culture war and all the uncomfortable policing that inevitably follows.”
  • As CJR noted recently, Apple says its news app is better at surfacing high-quality or trusted news than some other platforms (such as Facebook) because it relies on human editors. Apple CEO Tim Cook expanded on that idea in a recent speech, saying: “We felt top stories should be selected by humans, to make sure you’re not picking content that strictly has the goal of enraging people.”

ICYMI: Keep the focus on the border

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.