re:The Seduction of Civility: Virtue or Vice?

I prefer to think of the debate Will and I have between persuasion and punching as the difference between chess and checkers, short term vs. long term thinking. For me, the “gotcha” moments never seem to lead to change. Sure, it’s nice to be right, but what’s the point? Gay people still can’t get married.

The first thing to note is that Huckabee and Stewart have a kind of contract between them. Huckabee agrees to appear on “The Daily Show” and get pushed around a bit in front of lefty college types, and Jon Stewart agrees not to be a dick. This leads to the second important contract, the one Stewart has with his future guests. He knows that future guests will be watching, and if the deck is weighted too heavily against them, he’ll only be able to get guests who agree with him to appear on the show, and what’s the point of that? Then he’s just a funny guy making funny jokes with other people who already share his point of view.

More important than either of these contracts, however, is what is at stake for these straight, white men in their debate about the civil rights of another group. After all, Stewart knows he can’t change Huckabee’s mind, and Huckabee knows his position will not be accepted by Stewart or his fans. So what’s the point of the debate? What is the teachable moment?

The term “teachable moment” isn’t simply a metaphor for me. Most of the time when I’m engaged in a heated discussion about a topic like gay marriage or issues about race or gender, the conversation takes place in front of other people. They might be students, colleagues, friends, or guests at a party. So whatever “honey” I might use is less about persuading the person in front of me, whose mind is already made up, and more about the other people in the room. I want to “teach” them my view point, and I know I can’t do that if I’m annihilating my opponent. And, trust me, I can, but then the other guy becomes the underdog, and even if people want to agree with me, they will sympathize with him because they all know the experience of feeling beat up on, and the conversation later that night or the next day won’t be about who was right or who was wrong but who was reasonable and who behaved like a tool.

That’s what I think Stewart was up to last night. He wasn’t interested in the audience in the studio or changing Huckabee’s mind or calling him out as a homophobe. He was thinking of how this would play on the internet and he knows that most people will key into two or three things like:

  • The moment Stewart points out to Huckabee that religion is for more of a choice than sexuality
  • The moment Stewart asks Huckabee, “When did you decide to be heterosexual?”
  • The handshake at the end

Those two comments are the kind of statements people can repeat when they get into their own debates on the issue, and the handshake at the end models civilized discourse, which is essential if not always as efficient as we would like.

Stewart could have pushed harder and dismantled Huckabee, and he almost does. Near the end of the segment, Stewart begins to theorize about sexuality, and you can tell that Huckabee isn’t smart enough to really understand what he’s saying. Stewart knows this too, pulls back, and shakes his hand, forcing Huckabee to accept that Stewart gets the final word and gesturing to everyone that he is reasonable and so should be considered reasonably.

Had he called Huckabee a homophobe at the end of the segment, that would have been the lasting moment, the headline dominating the blogs. Stewart might have won in the moment had he called Huckabee what he so clearly is, but Huckabee would win the night and the next day and the day after that.

I’m of the opinion that we need to be careful when we label people and their ideas. Even when we’re right, I think the moment a label is applied is the moment the conversation ends.

It’s slow, frustrating work, and as a black woman who had to learn quickly the best way to debate issues of race with people who could hurt my career, I can say that it’s exhausting and maddening, but I know, first hand, that it’s a strategy that works.

There is a time to be bad, to call out power, grab it by the balls and not let go until you get what you want, but you have to do that with the people who can actually change things. Huckabee is not that guy, and punching him in the face in the name of honor while satisfying would not have been particularly strategic.

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re:The Seduction of Civility: Virtue or Vice?

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