Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER
For years, political reporters have twisted and stretched the definition of the word hypocrisy to make it fit whatever story they wanted to write, until the word became all but meaningless. "Hypocrisy" was such a tempting peg for a story, reporters stopped caring whether it actually fit the situation in question. (See in particular the bizarre tendency of the media to portray a rich man who cares about the poor as a hypocrite.) There's a danger of the same thing happening to the word civility.
For example, under the headline "So much for civility …," Politico's Jonathan Allen writes of last night's State of the Union: "The civility show didn't last long in Congress. Actually, it never really started." Allen then proceeds to list several statements by members of Congress, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with "civility."
This, for example, is not an example of incivility, though Politico portrays it as such:
Within minutes of Obama's conclusion that the state of the union is "strong," Republican lawmakers blasted out press releases taking him to task for wanting to spend more on what he termed "investments."
Nor is this:
"House Republicans' answer to our nation's fiscal challenges is Draconian budget cuts on the backs of middle class families," New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. "It is increasingly clear that the Republican way to reduce spending is to eliminate support for middle class families and seniors while protecting spending on special interests."
But those are the kinds of things Politico points to as evidence of a lack of civility: Broad expressions of disagreement over policy.
It is not uncivil for Republicans to say they think the President wants to spend too much. it is not uncivil for Democrats to say they think Republicans want to cut too much. And when you pretend that these things constitute a breech of civility, you devalue that criticism. You let people who really are uncivil -- say, those who talk of beating elected officials to a "bloody pulp" -- off the hook. Like the boy who cried wolf, you undermine legitimate concerns. And, at the same time, you stigmatize simple expressions of policy disagreement.