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Sanders on civil discourse and calling a liar a liar

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In his response to the WaPo article discussed here yesterday, Sen. Sanders deftly disassembles the idea that civil discourse means saying nothing at all if one can’t say something nice.

We face a very serious political problem in this country, and that problem is manifested in a post written yesterday by Amber Phillips of The Washington Post. In her piece, Phillips criticizes me for lowering the state of our political discourse, because I accused the president of being a “liar.”

What should a United States senator, or any citizen, do if the president is a liar? Does ignoring this reality benefit the American people? Do we make a bad situation worse by disrespecting the president of the United States? Or do we have an obligation to say that he is a liar to protect America’s standing in the world and people’s trust in our institutions?

The call to remain civil – or at least silent – in response to people who are being uncivil is hardly new. Members of marginalized groups are regularly shushed, told to tone it down, exhorted to consider how they will be perceived by the Fencesitting Chappaquiddickians and even the people who are marginalizing them in the first place.

But articles like Phillips’ indicate that these defenders of civility will tell anyone to be quiet no matter who they are or what they’re doing. They just want everyone to show due deference to the most powerful person in the room. If that person happens to be an orange white supremacist who often repeats lies created by or popular with white supremacists, it’s somehow not fair to say that person is a liar. It has always been ridiculous and dangerous.

Sanders’ response is worth reading in its entirety. He posts the Tweets Phillips took issue with in her article, explains them and wraps up with a question elected officials, members of the press need to answer.

But how do we deal with a president who makes statements that reverberate around our country and the world that are not based on fact or evidence? What is the appropriate way to respond to that? And if the media and political leaders fail to call lies what they are, are they then guilty of misleading the public?

(Hint: Yes.)

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  • DamnYankees

    This is the same reaction we’ve seen for the past 8 years.

    Republicans engage in unprecedented obstruction, forcing the Democrats hand in removing the filibuster? Call out Democrats for removing the filibuster, while ignoring the catalyst.

    Republicans nominate absurdly unqualified cabinet nominees, leading to mass Democratic opposition? Call out Democratic opposition is unprecedented, while ignoring the catalyst.

    A Democratic Senator reads a letter about how the new AG is a racist? Call out Democrats for breaking protocol, while ignoring the catalyst.

    And now, our President is a liar of world historical proportions, leading Democrats to…notice that face? Call out Democrats for being uncivil.

    The game never ends.

    • CP

      Republicans nominate absurdly unqualified cabinet nominees, leading to mass Democratic opposition? Call out Democratic opposition is unprecedented, while ignoring the catalyst.

      And also the fact that it’s literally what Republicans just did for the previous eight years.

    • keta
    • Why are you hitting yourself?

  • Good for sanders!

  • Anna in PDX

    Civility trolling is the proverbial “pounding the table” – we need to just call it out and shut it down.

    • Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig calls it “civility hustling,” and it is the first refuge of people with nothing to say.

      • Abbey Bartlet

        Snort.

        • Origami Isopod

          Indeed.

      • Harkov311

        Heh, I’m stealing that one.

    • DrDick

      Calls for “civility” are the first recourse of scoundrels.

  • PeteW

    Sanders is simply saying the emperor has no clothes. I would have thought Phillips read that story as a kid.

  • Abbey Bartlet

    Well done, Bernard.

  • busker type

    I’ve been calling my Republican senator to bitch about her not calling bullshit on the president.. I don’t really expect it to work, but we’re dealing with an honest-to-god threat to the republic here, so I think it’s worth trying.

  • Brownian

    I can’t get on board. What evidence does Sanders have that H.R.1275 is not the world’s greatest healthcare plan of 2017? It’s right there in the title.

  • PotemkinMetropolitanRegion

    I can’t stand media handwringing on whether the ontological concept of “lying” exists ::coughcoughNPRcoughcoughcough::. People are called on every day to determine whether others are lying; parents with kids, business, jurors on witnesses, etc. The most egregious falsehoods might leave a one percent chance that Trump is delusional enough to believe this stuff, but lets call a spade a spade.

    • We shouldn’t call Trump a liar because for all we know he might just be insane

      • efgoldman

        We shouldn’t call Trump a liar because for all we know he might just be insane

        Then let’s call him delusional, and his bleatings, made up fantasies. I’d settle for that.
        Is that more “civil”? I honestly don’t give a flying fuck. Either works for me.
        Hell, the RWNJs can’t even agree on basic arithmetic, based on their arguments for their piece of shit replacement ACA.

  • Murc

    Speaking as a huge booster of civility, I am constantly enraged by the way it gets used as weapon to try and illegitimatize dissent.

    Because you know what? Sanders was in fact quite civil, both in his initial statements and in his response. He didn’t yell and scream and drop expletives or flip a table or wave his dick at Trump live and on-camera while shouting “suck on THIS, Il Douche!”

    That would have been uncivil, and inappropriate for the contexts he was acting in and the office he occupies.

    Instead all he did was point out the obvious, that Trump lies like you and I breath. And he didn’t even do it by heckling him from the floor of Congress while he was speaking either.

    Sanders was civil. But civility isn’t good enough for some people. They don’t want civility, they want genuflection.

    • Abbey Bartlet

      But civility isn’t good enough for some people. They don’t want civility, they want genuflection.

      QFT.

    • vic rattlehead

      That’s the game. For a certain kind of prick (especially rich pricks) anything less than complete obsequiousness is disrespect.

      If you don’t literally prostrate yourself before your Republican daddy and lick those boots, you’re just a punk who has no business in polite society.

      If you’re criticizing Paul Ryan, that means his cock isn’t in your mouth. If you’re not schlobbin’ Ryan’s knob you’re ruining civil discourse and helping bring about the fall of western civilization with your unculturedness. You don’t question your Republican daddy! You just obey! OBEY!

      Another play is that any and all criticism of Republicans is OPPRESSION!

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      Civility is over-rated. It’s hardly a bad thing per se, but I’d put it second to matters of substance almost every time. I take your point, but most of the time I hear civility invoked is as a [potential] weapon, to distract from a substantive issue, to cut off discussion, or to silence inconvenient speakers and opinions.

      And as you say, Sanders delivered his comments in an appropriate professional manner. I’d like to see him do the same on the Senate floor, and extend them to include [that lying p.o.s.] Paul Ryan as well. Since neither is a Senator, I assume that McConnell wouldn’t be able to silence Sanders on the basis of lack of respect for a fellow Senator.

      • vic rattlehead

        Well, I try to avoid being gratuitously uncivil (I don’t spin out just because I disagree with someone, unless they’re being a dishonest prick or something-like Trump!). I see no reason to be uncivil just for the sake of being uncivil. So civility from me is something you earn by engaging in good faith-when you don’t (like Trump), you break that implied contract.

        All that being said, anyone who thinks Sanders was being uncivil in what’s quoted above leads a very sheltered life.

        For intellectually lazy journalists like Phillips, correctly calling Republicans on their lies bursts their High Broderist bubble. Bursting that bubble requires them to do actual intellectual work (Broderism persists out of laziness more than anything else I think). People like Phillips resent that, so call it “uncivil.” If you want to see what uncivil really looks like, come down to a compliance conference with me at Kings Supreme and listen to some of the verbal abuse that gets hurled around.

        • efgoldman

          Broderism persists out of laziness more than anything else I think

          Certainly makes the writing easier, because it doesn’t require a hell of a lot of thought or real reporting.

    • Nick056

      Amber Phillips confused an allegation of bad faith with incivilty, an unfortunately common mistake. Both get you in trouble in debating societies, but they’re not the same thing, and this ain’t a debating society.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    This is a sub-set of Herbert Marcuse’s problem: how do you hold a civil conversation with a Stormtrooper? Marcuse, who had actual experience with the situation, said that you can’t and that tolerating expression of ideas that are aimed at destroying civil discourse is a form of moral cowardice and inherently dangerous. All this is in A Critique of Pure Tolerance and is just as relevant now as it was then.

    I think that civil discourse is based on truth. If you run into lies, you specifically and strongly refute them. If, after refutation, a speaker persists in lying, you brand them as such and show the reason why. This is civil discourse; hard nosed and dedicated to trying to determine the truth. Everything else degenerates into politeness and is destructive of discourse in a democratic society.

    But what if the speaker continues his lies and expands them with rhetoric aimed at inflaming anti-democratic sentiments? Should such a speaker be tolerated by those trying to protect civil discourse? Marcuse had an answer: shout them down. (Not, mind, forbid them from speaking in the first place, just don’t be tolerant of their lies when they do.) I hate to say this since I generally support free speech rights, but I’ve never heard an answer to this argument that was strong enough to persuade me that Marcuse was wrong.

    • Steve LaBonne

      He wasn’t. Free speech, as Lincoln said of the Constitution, isn’t a suicide pact.

      • rea

        That was Justice Roberts (not the present one) in the 40’s, not Lincoln.

    • DamnYankees

      There are some people out there who regard free expression as the single most important virtue in a civic society. I feel extremely uncomfortable arguing against such a thing, since it’s certainly at the very top of my life of things which are important. But it’s not the most important. Things like “not committing genocide” are more important, for example.

      I think for a lot of people, there’s just this underlying assumption that if you put all the arguments on the table, then the “good ones” will win. But that’s not how public argumentation works. Public speech is not an act of rational persuasion. It’s an act of performance, or affinity, or raising profiles of issues even if you aren’t convincing anyone. While we use the term “trolling” now, it’s not a new phenomenon – there have always been people who say things not with the intention of convincing anyone, but with the intention of digging into the lizard brain purely to cause reactions.

      Most people don’t have strong opinions about most things. The fact that lots of Americans have, and had, pretty liberal opinions about racial issues (both compared to our past and compared to our contemporaries) is not some iron clad rule of existence. It’s not like if you make a racist argument and a non-racist one, then the racist one has to lose. In lots of times, and lots of places, the racist argument will win. Not necessarily because it’s better in any logical or coherent way, but because it’s performative in arousing passions among people. People who have the capacity to do violence.

      There are very, very, very few instances where I think it makes any sense in America to forbid anyone from speaking. But I think there is a time where you need to distinguish between the act of speaking, when done in good faith in an attempt to make an actual argument, and the act of speaking done as a performance in order to elicit a reaction. We can’t take for granted that allowing the former is the single highest civic virtue there is.

      • sibusisodan

        Lots to chew on here. Thanks v much.

      • DamnYankees

        Ah, crap, I messed up the last sentence. I meant to say “allowing the latter“, obviously. Ugh.

    • Murc

      This is a sub-set of Herbert Marcuse’s problem: how do you hold a civil conversation with a Stormtrooper?

      This is easily done. Some of the most racist shitstains in American history have been genteel, highly civil southern gentleman.

      But the fact that they’re civil and polite has no bearing whatsoever on them not being, you know… monsters.

      Marcuse, who had actual experience with the situation, said that you can’t and that tolerating expression of ideas that are aimed at destroying civil discourse is a form of moral cowardice and inherently dangerous.

      How are we defining “tolerate” here? Because in my mind, it means “not subject to censorship or legal punishment.” Which, yes, it absolutely should be, because putting the government in charge of deciding what political viewpoints will get you thrown in jail and what will not isn’t really a road we want to talk down.

      • DamnYankees

        Some of the most racist shitstains in American history have been genteel, highly civil southern gentleman.

        And was conversing with them in any way useful?

        How are we defining “tolerate” here? Because in my mind, it means “not subject to censorship or legal punishment.” Which, yes, it absolutely should be, because putting the government in charge of deciding what political viewpoints will get you thrown in jail and what will not isn’t really a road we want to talk down.

        Given these discussions always arise from protesters shouting people down, I think it makes way more sense to interpret the meaning of “tolerate” in that context. No one I’m aware of is seriously advocating putting these speakers in jail. They just want them shouted down. Which, good or bad, is a wholly different thing.

        • Murc

          And was conversing with them in any way useful?

          I would say that exposing their monstrousness for all the world to see is a useful thing, yes.

          • DamnYankees

            That wasn’t done through conversations. It was done through videos of dogs and firehouses. Sadly.

          • Nick056

            What? No. When you let genteel racists talk, they don’t “expose their monstrousness” — more frequently, they evoke home, hearth, dignity, and personal loyalty and courage. This is and has been the Southern dodge since April 1865. It helped kill reconstruction and inaugurated Jim Crow.

            “Exposing monstrousness” is only important if you assume that the critical audience comprises people who won’t be the direct victims of the monster. Those people already get it, and they don’t view the speech as a liberal teaching moment but as a correlative for and prelude to violence.

      • Gentility and civility are not traits one assumes and puts aside depending on who one is dealing with. The person you describe is a POS who displays pretty manners in certain situations.

        • Murc

          Gentility and civility are not traits one assumes and puts aside depending on who one is dealing with.

          Er, how could they not be? We make the decision as to how we’re going to interact with people and the specific levels of civility we’re going to display towards them every single day, often multiple times.

          The person you describe is a POS who displays pretty manners in certain situations.

          Yes? This would seem to be a re-statement of my own contention.

          • If someone can be described as a racist shitstain, they can’t also be described as genteel or civil, no matter how fine his manners are to people he deems worthy of politeness. It’s like saying a man who spends his time screwing over the poor and screwing anything that moves is a good Christian because he goes to church every Sunday.

            • DamnYankees

              I have no idea why, but your post reminds of a line I loved from Sports Night.

              Isaac: (Luther Sachs) is a southerner.
              Dan: Luther Sachs is German.
              Isaac: He’s a southerner for three generations.
              Dan: Faulkner was a southerner.
              Isaac: Faulkner was a southern gentleman.
              Dan: There’s a difference?
              Isaac: The difference, Danny, is all the difference.

              Being older now, I don’t know if I actually agree with the politics of this exchange. But I love the writing.

            • Murc

              If someone can be described as a racist shitstain, they can’t also be described as genteel or civil, no matter how fine his manners are to people he deems worthy of politeness.

              I think you and are using genteel and civil in very different ways. To me, they’re extensions of manners; they describe certain normative behaviors and styles and their presence or lack thereof do not intrinsically carry with them any moral, ethical, or character implications.

              • los

                probably somebody: “Dr Mengele was such a cheery fellow, as he pursued his work with glowing joy.”

            • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

              I’m reminded of the line from Lennon’s Working Class Hero:

              But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
              If you want to be like the folks on the hill.

    • efgoldman

      I hate to say this since I generally support free speech rights….

      Yes, but it’s the right which applies to both sides. Free speech for thee but not for me is not free at all.

  • Rob in CT

    Bern baby Bern. :)

  • Sebastian_h

    Echoing above, I wouldn’t say that Sanders was uncivil at all. He was perfectly civil in pointing out the strict and necessary truth that Trump and his cronies are engaging in lying. He isn’t even talking about the typical political half-truths. He’s calling out the lies in a very civil way.

    In fact, I would say that being civil but direct about it is much more powerful than frothing or being uncivil. It sets a direct contrast in both tone and message.

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