Archive for August, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.



Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard



…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.


—-Søren Kierkegaard



The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63