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What are the limits of civility?

By Scott Tibbs, July 25, 2018

So what does it actually mean to be "civil" in political discourse? To be brutally honest, I do not know. That is actually why I am writing this blog post, to help myself clarify my own thoughts on what is and is not within the bounds of civility. There have been books written on this very subject, so I would not be so arrogant and foolish to expect that one blog post will be the answer. Nonetheless, It is helpful to go through a few general principles on what is and is not civil.

Respect the public and private spheres. The internet is a public sphere. If you say something online, then you may get heat for it. Government meetings are a public sphere and government offices are a public sphere. But someone's private life should be respected. If someone is out and about conducting private business, leave him alone. Do not harass people in public, and do not harass someone at home because you disagree with him. Protesting a public place is one thing. Harassing someone at home or while they are acting as a private citizen is something else. "Doxxing" private information is also wrong.

Leave people's employment alone. We have seen social media lynch mobs on both right and left get people fired because they said something foolish online. But unless the person's employment is directly related to what he said online, that is not an appropriate line of attack. Consider this: We have all said stupid things and we have all said offensive things. Do you really want to encourage the same mob mentality that would turn on you if they knew about the stupid or offensive thing that you said? Do not destroy someone's livelihood just because you disagree with him - or worse, because you disagree with his family.

Do not lie.There is never a justification for lying about someone. If you make an unintentional mistake and spread false information, correct it and apologize.

A corollary to that is it is not uncivil to call someone a liar, if he actually is lying. In fact, it is a breach of civility to not call out liars, because of how destructive lies are to our culture, to trust in government, and especially to the reputations of innocent people who are being falsely accused of things they did not do.

Mocking personal tragedies, such as the loss of a loved one, is evil and demonic.

Personal mocking is probably where the lines are most difficult. Parody and satire have always existed, and both politicians and people in the public square have always been targets of satire and jokes. However, there are lines to be drawn. Going after someone's family - especially children - is absolutely wrong. Generally, mocking someone's personal characteristics (such as appearance) should be avoided. It does not advance the argument and makes you look childish and petty. But in many cases it depends on the context and sometimes people (myself included) just need to grow a thicker skin.

That is just scratching the surface. Most of this basically comes down to common sense and how you would personally want to be treated by your own political enemies. "Fighting fire with fire" is not a good excuse to breach civility. If you want the political world to be more civil, then we all need to model it in our own lives. I know I have failed many times to live up to that, and that I need to be better. We all do.