When Civility Trumps All

Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, has branded the protesters against Trump’s UK visit an ‘embarrassment to themselves’:

The US President has his own way of expressing himself and I don’t think that the protesters were an embarrassment to the government. I think they were an embarrassment to themselves and I think when you have the President of the United States, the leader of the free world being greeted with signs that say ‘go home, we hate you’. I don’t think that reflects the genuine good manners and hospitality of the British people.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

To begin, let’s quickly remind ourselves that Liam Fox was forced to resign as defence secretary in 2011 for letting his mate, Adam Werrity, attend MoD meetings without security clearance – among other serious security faux pas. He’s a disgrace, and so long as we’re considering embarrassments, it’s an embarrassment that he’s in office.

However, that doesn’t necessarily make Fox wrong, so let’s move on before the Ad Hominem Brigade swoops upon me.

Another preliminary issue. Piers Morgan’s frustratingly hilarious tirade at Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar sort of stumbled through a point – people (unlike Ash!) who love Obama and hate Trump are being hypocritical, since Obama (plus the Clintons, May, Macron, Trudeau, etc…) is cut from a more politically correct, less cartoonishly extreme, corner of the same sordid cloth. The outrage in response to Trump also belongs with other targets, such as our government’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. However, it’s disingenuous to dismiss someone’s cause because there are other things they could also be protesting about but aren’t.

Fox’s opening euphemism is fascinating. ‘The US President has his own way of expressing himself,’ does he? That’s sure one way to describe the man who openly mocked a disabled reporter during his campaign, and was famously recorded engaging in ‘locker room talk’ about assaulting women.

Being asked to be civil to someone who’s merely a tad rude is one thing – there’s often something to be said for taking the high road, both morally and pragmatically. But if we extend ‘hospitality’ to a misogynist and bigot, we are denying it to his targets. It is an insult to victims of sexual assault to give a person who joked about it like that the red-carpet treatment, and sick to welcome with open arms a President with a low-key Gestapo as part of his migration policy:

In anticipation of crackdowns, people say they have stopped driving, stopped shopping, stopped sending remittances to countries of origin. […] Families are forgoing medical care, afraid to have their identities examined in hospital emergency rooms. Children wonder aloud if they’ll come home from school to find their parents gone.

Leader of the ‘free world’ – also leader of the country with ICE and (racialised) mass incarceration? That’s a massive topic in itself.

Is it mean to say to Trump, ‘go home, we hate you?’

The Citations Needed episode The Civility Fetish made a wonderful point about how the liberal fetish for civility is being like a dog, who only understands tone, not content. Going by tone, being unwelcoming to Trump is mean. But it’s important to grow up and understand content.

The protesters are in fact saying more substantive content than ‘go home Drumpf’. And as I’ve already mentioned, to be welcoming to Trump is to be unwelcoming to others by implication. Better a conscious punching up than a reflexive and spineless punching down.

It’s not as though we’re talking about an assassination anyway – it’s a peaceful protest with a silly balloon. Come on. How else can a protest work? Should we limit ourselves to impassionately reciting facts? Or go full-on deferential:

Sorry, Mr. President, I know you’re a busy man, but if I may, please, I promise to make this quick. For quite some time sir, I’m sure you’re aware, but respectfully, Dr. Trump, mind you, Captain President, sir—and there’s nothing you can do about it, good professor!

That’s right, Mr. Trump, my best friend, the clock is ticking, dear sir, and it’s about time. About damn time, if I may use some unseemly language, my good man and esteemed president!

I understand that norms around civility and niceness shouldn’t be thrown out the window completely, of course. I prefer to avoid attacking people. I’m not comfortable with political discourse that consists solely of savagely dunking on one person after another, on personal rather than policy grounds, and wishing opponents dead – it’s nasty, lazy, shabby, and doesn’t get new people on side. We see where this attitude ultimately leads in the case of Sam Kriss: it was hardly that shocking when the guy who wrote In Defence of Personal Attacks turned out to, um, not be particularly virtuous.

But let’s not go to ‘Sir! Excuse me, sir, Mr President sir!’ extremes either. Actual morality should be rated above following civil codes of discourse that protect the powerful and malicious. And as Chapo Trap House successdaughter Amber A’Lee Frost concluded in her excellent article on the need for political vulgarity:

Reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility. Vulgarity is the language of the people, and so it should be among the grammars of the left, just as it has been historically, to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful. We cannot cede vulgarity to the vulgarians; collegial intellectuals will always be niche, but class war need not be.

Liam Fox’s call for civility is wrong in a number of ways. Bemoaning a lack of ‘good manners’ in the face of Trump is a coward’s capitulation in the hope of a juicy trade deal, placing the fetishised idol of civility above any principles worth holding or morals worthy of the name.

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