The 2016 election cycle, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, has put on full display the social, cultural, and political breakdown we are experiencing in the United States. We have seen politicians treat each other with disrespect and incivility; we have heard radio show hosts and cable network pundits issuing high-decibel invective and inanity; we have watched citizens use the comment sections of blogs, news articles, and even Facebook posts to demean and degrade each other; we have watched bombers and shooters take human life in front of our eyes; we watched videos of Planned Parenthood executives glibly chatted about the dismembered body parts of aborted children. The list could go on, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.
Perhaps we have, for too long, attempted to stem the tide of incivility. If we are in the middle of a “culture war,” maybe we should discharge the same poisons others are emitting in our already-toxic public square. As the saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Thus, as a public service, I offer a helpful how-to. For any person wishing to help accelerate our nation’s social, cultural, and political breakdown, be sure to follow these 12 easy steps the next time you find yourself engaged in political conversation or debate.
- Treat the other as a category rather than a person. If this person is nothing more than a category—secular progressive, religious conservative, establishment lackey—then you are free to dismiss him as such. Just imagine that he is an aggregate of the common vices and errors you ascribe to people of that category. Then (“voila!” as they say) you are free to demean and degrade the person as if he were an impersonal collation of vices and errors. Vices don’t deserve your respect, and errors don’t require patience. Show neither.
- Refuse to listen attentively to the other. Instead of focusing on others and their words, make sure you focus on yourself. Control the conversation, shifting attention away from any good point the other might make. As they are engaging you in debate, try to pay minimal attention in the moment so that you can devote your attention to scoring debate points whenever their mouth finally closes. It’s about winning, isn’t it, folks? And nobody gets medals for listening.
- Find ways to speak unkindly. When the other person is speaking substantively on the issues, try to slip in an unkind word about their racial, national, or religious identity. It doesn’t much matter what the insult is, or if it has any merit. The key is to make yourself look big and to make your opponent look small. Consider bragging about your own accomplishments while belittling their life story and career. If the opportunity arises, consider laughing at them. Remember, if you can make the other person look bad, you’ve got the opportunity not only to cause considerable damage to their psyche and reputation, but also to make yourself shine by contrast.
- Withhold praise. Treat the other person as somebody about whom there is nothing praiseworthy. Refuse to give ground. If social etiquette or political strategy require you to pay a compliment of some sort, find a way to make the compliment ambiguous, bland, or patently insincere.
- Do not just disagree with the other’s opinion; go the second mile by disrespecting it! Similar to “withholding praise,” but offering its own special merits, the “disrespect their opinion” strategy refuses to recognize anything good about their opinion. But rather than merely withholding praise, this strategy allows you to ascribe stupidity, weakness, and all-around-badness to the other person. Do not entertain the notion that your opponent sincerely believes his stance, but happens to be mistaken.
- Offer your own opinion as a self-evident and transcendent truth. This strategy is the positive flipside of the “disrespect their opinion” strategy. State your view as such a colossal jewel of glittering wisdom that a person who disagrees must be either a moron (and doesn’t know the right answers) or a villain (who does know the answers and is intentionally leading us away from it).
- Ascribe bad intentions to the other person. Demonize them by making them through-and-through bad, and offer the particular issue at hand as an example of that badness. Your opponent has never done anything with a clean conscience or for a good reason. Every silver lining has a black cloud, and it’s your job to find it.
- Refuse to admit that you are wrong about anything. If you are caught, lie. Shift the blame. Divert attention from the issue at hand. Wrap your head in asbestos and don a tutu. Really, anything at all except admitting that you were wrong. A toxic political environment cannot be sustained if people begin to take ownership of their past mistakes.
- Take advantage of good opportunities to impinge on the other person’s territory. During a discussion or debate, you might consider taking an inordinate amount of time to express your view. Similarly, you might speak over the top of the other person so as to drown out his voice. (Or both. Why not both?) Your opponent doesn’t have anything worth saying anyway, so you’re really doing everyone a favor by refusing to let them finish a thought.
- When forced to apologize, do so in an insincere manner. While your first impulse as a human being might be to give a thoughtfully conceived, clearly stated, and heartfelt apology, resist that impulse. Instead, give a strategically conceived, ambiguously stated, and disingenuous apology. Also (and the importance of this counsel cannot be overstated), at the same time you are delivering an insincere apology, turn the tables on your interlocutor by demanding that he apologize to you (for any number of real or fabricated offenses).
- Find ways to overstate your case, to make more of it than is reasonable. If your political opponent has made some mistakes, portray him as if he made nothing other than mistakes for the entirety of his career. If your opponent has a weakness, try not to remain content with pointing out the weakness; instead, depict him as a bad person and unworthy of respect. If your exchange takes place in an electronic medium, it’s always a nice touch to use ALL CAPS and “!!!!!”s to make your point.
- Above all, misrepresent your opponent. Do this on purpose and do it regularly. After a while, the public will believe what you’ve said about your opponent. It may be challenging for you to lie with such regularity, so learn from the greats. Listening to radio talk shows or watching cable news networks will give you a helpful perspective for how it can be done.
Editorial Note: If you’ve made it thus far to the end of the post, I offer three clarifications. First, and if you are not quick to detect satire, please know that I don’t actually want you to contribute to social breakdown by following these 12 awful rules. Although each of us—the author of this post certainly included—are tempted to be uncivil, my hope is that we will resist that temptation. Second, and for that reason, I hope the positive lessons we need to learn about civility might best be learned—in this one post anyway—by reflecting upon the ugliness of incivility for just a moment. Third, this post is taken from my lecture notes on civility, notes which are “evergreen” and not crafted with any particular partisan group or politician as a target.
Never miss a post! Have all new posts delivered straight to your inbox.
Looking back over my 64+ years, I unfortunately can recall the use of all twelve easy steps sometime in my past. These steps are not limited to political discourse, but readily applicable to everyday interactions with both family, friends and even complete strangers. I’m guilty! How fortunate believers are that we are forgiven through the saving grace of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. Thank you for this checklist of how not to interact with others!