The first several definitions of the word civil in my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary refer to the more public connotations of the word: “1. of, pertaining to, or consisting of citizens...civil liberty,” and so forth. It isn’t until the 7th definition that we come to the word’s more private connotation: “7. adhering to norms of polite, social intercourse; not deficient in common courtesy.”
In a live forum discussion, Rabbi Harold Kushner made light of circumcision by saying, “The only long-term effect that it seems to have on people is to increase their chances of winning a Nobel prize.” The comment elicited laughter from the audience, but Christopher Hitchens (may he be well, and I forgive him his Iraq opinion), unamused, responded with, “I can’t find the compulsory mutilation of the genitals of children a subject for humor in that way, or flippancy in that way...”
He continued: “...That a person as humane as yourself can sit here and think of that as a fit subject for humor shows what I mean—religion makes normally moral people say and do disgusting and wicked things, and you just proved my point. Shame on you for saying what you’ve just said! Shame on you...My god!”
This typifies “Hitch’s” habit of telling his truth to anybody who happens to be sitting next to him and spouting idiocy, a truth he offers as directly as he pleases, according to the passion of his beautiful intellect. (which failed him on Iraq, I’m sorry to say.) Those on the pitiable receiving end of such are now known to have been “Hitch-slapped,” a fate I’m glad I will never meet, since I am highly unlikely to ever find myself in a debate with the man. Regardless, one question for me today is whether we should conclude, given his “rude” response to the Rabbi, Hitch is not a “civil” person? When we witness a Hitch-slap, are we witnessing incivility, or, in the sense of the first meanings of the word civil, are we witnessing a person exercising his public rights of speech, that is to say, civil-speak?
I believe he engages in civil-speak, and I also believe his ability to say it freely contributes to the healthy, democratic spirit of our society, to say nothing of our endless amusement. We desperately need those refreshing moments provided by indomitable citizens willing to tell it exactly how it is, in exactly a succinct, bare and articulate manner.
I ask you—is it correct to say that polite discourse, civility, is in the better interest of the character of our public sphere than is civil-speak? Of course, no one can argue that it is not in the best interest of individuals within the private spheres of family, work, or neighborhoods, to exercise civility. We do, and we must. Can’t we, though, argue for civil-speak within the public sphere? What kind of namby-pamby, colorless, boring and, yes, oppressed public realm would we see, were we forced to temper all our opinions so as to avoid offending thin-skinned sensibilities, especially of those who wish to protect their chosen politician from insults, that is, criticism, like petty dictators do?
Every time there’s a horrific event, the culture seems to find a convenient scapegoat, one useful as a means toward avoidance of looking at root causes. Thus, for example, when a Loughner attempts to assassinate a U.S. Representative, the righties focus on the “lone, crazed assassin” explanation, while the lefties focus on “incivility”— “it’s all that hate speech spouted by Glen Beck and the like.” The right refuses to look at gun control regulation; the left bemoans the absence of kumbaya and fails to mention joblessness, lack of a mental health safety net, poverty, the ridiculous cost of higher education, the pressures of a cold, competitive society with a rapidly diminishing middle class. Soon, not only is hate speech condemned, but any animated, colorful, direct and truthful verbal discourse is discouraged as being contrary to the value of civility. Ultimately, it is not only civil liberty that has to go, though—the language itself must degenerate toward the bland: “Don’t be negative—look forward, not backward; if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” and the Christopher Hitchens of the world are despised for not making feel-good with the language. 1984 is long past. Welcome to 2011—our happy-dappy days are here again.