Civility matters universally, but the manner in which you are civil may vary as widely as local dialects and other manners do.
Just a few minutes after I wrote the post on Polite Manners, I listened to Megyn Kelly’s interview with J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a very good interview, which comes as no surprise, since virtually everything on her show is excellent.
I was struck when J. D. Vance described my point of view quite precisely…and disagreed with it. Here’s a transcript of the relevant clip:
Megyn Kelly: Do you think that it explains why, when so-called “coastal elites” were getting very upset over the many offenses that Trump caused–some of the sexism, some of the foul-mouthed language–that this was not particularly shocking, because a lot of these folks had grown up around that?
J. D. Vance: Absolutely. I’ve criticized a lot of Trump’s rhetoric, and I’m not a big fan of some of the things that he’s said. But there was almost a sense where people were offended by Trump not because of the substance of what he said, but because of how he said it: “Good, society people should not talk in this way.” And I just never quite understood that criticism.
I think this is what J. D. Vance had in mind. Some people think that, in order to get elected to the presidency, or any other high-ranking public office, a candidate should show allegiance to the coastal elites by speaking English in a certain “proper” way. But a candidate should not have to show allegiance to any particular sub-culture in America. It’s fine for a candidate to speak in a way that reflects how everyday Americans speak. So Trump is to be admired for speaking in a way that resonates with voters in so-called “fly over states.”
And here’s my response. I think it’s true that Trump’s manner of speaking does resonate with a lot of people. That explains the appeal he has for many Americans who feel that their voice is not being heard, or that their voices have been excluded from national policy debates. Nonetheless, it does not justify some of the things Trumps says, nor does it justify his general disregard for the requirements of civility.
For example, notice that Megyn Kelly mentions his sexism. Trump has behaved on many occasions in a way that is verbally abusive to women (among others). Now imagine that this appeals to some voters because it’s the kind of behavior they’re used to: these people are used to men behaving in a way that’s verbally abusive to women. This use of language resonates with them.
Yes, that may explain part of Trump’s appeal. But it doesn’t justify his verbally abusive behavior. Verbally abusive behavior is a genuine form of abuse: it hurts people. It’s not just a matter of its offending the refined sensibilities of “good, society” people. In many situations, this kind of behavior is illegal: in the sense that it can be cited in court cases where child custody or spousal abuse is being adjudicated.
No one should behave in this way–especially someone running for public office. It may validate people who behave in similar ways, and it may even encourage them to continue or increase their bad behavior in future.
To meet the requirements of civility, it’s not necessary for a candidate to speak like a character in a Jane Austen novel. It would be fine to speak like Jason Aldean. But a candidate should refrain from using profanity and from being verbally abusive.
I suppose the root of the issue here begins with the question: What does it mean to serve as a democratic representative? It does not mean that you’re supposed to repeat everything you hear. You don’t just drop a microphone down in some random location and then uncritically function as the megaphone for the voices it picks up.
We send our very best athletes to represent our country at the Olympics. Even they are expected to demonstrate the virtues of good sportsmanship, teamwork, and honesty. We ought to think of our democratic representatives as our Olympic athletes in listening, critical reflection, and civility in discussion.
J. D. Vance represents his community in rural Ohio in this way. Like an Olympic athlete, he’s one of the best they have to offer.