Thursday, September 4, 2014

Otherers Part 3: A One-Sided Total War

Standards of civilized behavior are generally conceded to be falling back under heavy attack, not even mounting a rear guard for their retreat as the F-bombs and S-strafes rain down upon them. The devolution is multiply attributed, and in all likelihood cannot be isolated to a single causative influence. Only the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar is beyond dispute.

In our public discourse, we get examples of the malady such as this one:

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) decided the way to rally women against Governor Scott Walker (R-WI), who is running for reelection, was to use outrageous hyperbole making him into a Neanderthal.

“Scott Walker has given women the back of his hand,” the dipsy Dem said in Milwaukee. “I know that is stark. I know that is direct. I know that is reality.”

It’s also not true.

The Journal-Sentinel quoted her as also saying that “what Republican tea party extremists like Scott Walker are doing is they are grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back.”

A worthy successor to Howard Dean's "I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for," eh? But it comes from a long lineage:

"It's not 'spic' or 'nigger' any more. They say 'let's cut taxes.'" -- Charles Rangel (D, NY)
"These are people who are performing genocide with a smile. They're worse than Hitler." -- Major Owens (D, NY)
"They're gonna put you all back in chains." -- Joe Biden (D, Vice President)

I can't help but compare such scrofulous behavior to an event long ago, where the combat wasn't mediated by votes but by fists.

Many persons most strongly associate legendary boxing great John L. Sullivan with his famous line "I can lick any man in the house!" Yet another story reveals something else about Sullivan, and about the times in which he lived and fought.

In 1888, Sullivan, who had been stung by criticisms of his avoidance of European contenders for his (informal) title as boxing's heavyweight champion, journeyed to Chantilly Race Track in France to box English champion Charley Mitchell. As was customary in those days, the fight took place on turf, and the contestants wore steel-spiked shoes to assure their footing. Mitchell, determined to wrest Sullivan's status from him, tried on three separate occasions to stamp on Sullivan's foot. Had he succeeded in doing so, he would have injured Sullivan grievously, possibly securing a decisive advantage. After his third attempt, Sullivan stood back for a moment, fixed Mitchell with an indignant glare, and said "Try to be a gentleman, Charley, you so-and-so." The spectators gasped, Mitchell was stung, and the bout continued without further footplay.

The contest had rules even then. As bloody and debilitating as it was -- at the end of the bout, both contestants were unrecognizable for the damage they'd done to one another, and were too tired even to lift their arms -- boxing had rules that contestants could break only at the price of public derision and humiliation.

A standard of behavior is a set of rules about what must and must not be done, and in what contexts. There may be separate standards for public and private behavior, but in each case there will be musts and must-nots. Such standards, except for penal codes, are enforced entirely by the opinion of others: their willingness to admit others to their company and to grant them their approval. Should the enforcement slacken, the standard will ultimately fail to hold.

The opinions of various microcephalic idiots notwithstanding, enforcement is necessary. The reason is simple: Barbarous behavior comes with pleasures of its own.

The pleasures of admission to civil society are considerable. Just about everyone wants access to them, if he can get it. But imagine a would-be barbarian who could have every delight civil society offers and all the pleasures of the most appallingly uncivilized behavior as well. What would hold him back from indulging himself to whatever extent he pleases?

This is the case even among the barbarously inclined who believe themselves to be intellectually and morally superior to others. They employ a more sophisticated rationale than the simple "I can get away with it, so why not?" In their conception, persons "below" them intellectually and morally deserve no consideration such as they would grant to "one of us." Such benighted ones can be treated as if they were vicious animals, entirely without incurring odium...odium, that is, from "one of us." Which is entirely adequate to explain the state of contemporary political discourse.

But no decision nor action comes free of unintended consequences. This one -- i.e., the elevation of "us" to a presumed superior plane of insight and morality -- creates an incentive structure that attracts persons whose sole aim is to share in the pleasures of barbaric speech and conduct. Such persons will flock into the public arena in ever increasing numbers, and will behave with ever decreasing restraint. Over time, the degradation becomes so pronounced that any and all standards effectively cease to operate. Which is entirely adequate to explain the state of political exchange on the World Wide Web.

There's an enormous irony in there: the behavior loosed by "one of us" becomes indistinguishable from that of persons whose intellects and moral standing would compare unfavorably to a houseplant. It seeps into every context and every sort of human intercourse. Presently society is divided into persons who wouldn't emit an opinion even at gunpoint and persons who'll say whatever pops into their heads, no matter how vicious or vulgar....and the latter, among their other sins, will presume to lecture the former about civility.

No, Gentle Reader, you're not crazy. It's the rest of the world. Engage it at your peril.

1 comment:

MissAnthropy said...

You have articulated my own perception. I am only half-joking when I say I would like to see dueling come back. There was a time when certain lines of gentlemanly debate were not to be crossed, not without the risk of being publicly called out and challenged for the affront.

I think for example of the disgustingly offensive and uncouth things routinely said about Republican women and the wives of Republican men. A dose of Andrew Jackson would do some of these trolls well.

The code duello may have been barbarism with a refined veneer, but at this point I think it'd be better than the current situation. The current state of things allows the craven, cowardly, immoral, and obnoxious to fling the proverbial feces at better men without meaningful social consequences.

Meeting by the river at dawn would be preferable.