Advice from the Enlightenment: In the face of crude bullying and humorless lies, try wit and a passion for justice.
We are living through a climate change in politics. Bigotry, bullying, mendacity, vulgarity — everything emitted by the tweets of President Trump and amplified by his followers has damaged the atmosphere of public life. The protective layer of civility, which makes political discourse possible, is disappearing like the ozone around Earth.
How can we restore a healthy climate? There is no easy answer, but some historic figures offer edifying examples. The one I propose may seem unlikely, but he transformed the climate of opinion in his era: Voltaire, the French philosopher who mobilized the power of Enlightenment principles in 18th-century Europe.
.. To those encountering him for the first time, Voltaire can look like a historical curiosity. His archaic wig and libertine wit seem to belong to a forgotten corner of the past. Moreover, he can be considered a conservative. He curried favor with the high and mighty, especially Louis XV. He was so deeply committed to the cultural system developed under France’s previous ruler, Louis XIV, that he would fail any test of political correctness today. And Voltaire opposed education for the masses because, he said, someone had to tend the fields.
.. So, forget the wig. But reconsider the wit. Nothing works better than ridicule in cutting bigots down to size. “I have never made but one prayer to God,” Voltaire wrote, “a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” The first of the two most powerful weapons in his arsenal was laughter: “We must get the laughter on our side,” he instructed his auxiliary troops in the salons of Paris.
.. Ridicule works outside salons. We in America have Stephen Colbert on television. We had H.L. Mencken in the newspapers and Mark Twain in books. Yet wit can sound elitist, and Voltaire cultivated the elite, especially in his youth, when he celebrated wealth, pleasure and the good things of life. His poem “Le Mondain,” written in 1736, is an apology for worldly luxury — “the superfluous, a very necessary thing,” he wrote, in opposition to Christian asceticism.
That was Voltaire the young libertine. But now, in our contemporary crisis, I propose that we look also to Voltaire the angry old man. It was in his old age, during the 1760s and 1770s, that he wielded his second and most powerful weapon, moral passion.
In 1762 Voltaire learned about a case of judicial murder. The Parlement (high court) of Toulouse had condemned a Protestant merchant, Jean Calas, to be tortured and executed for supposedly killing his son, who supposedly had intended to convert to Catholicism. Not only were the suppositions wrong, but strong evidence pointed to Calas’s innocence.
Voltaire seized his pen. He composed the “Treatise on Tolerance,” one of the greatest defenses of religious liberty and civil rights ever written. He also wrote letters, hundreds of them, to all his contacts in the power elite — ministers, courtiers, salon leaders and fellow philosophers, working from the top down and manipulating the media of his day so skillfully that he created a tidal wave of public opinion, which would ultimately lead to the recognition of rights for Protestants in 1787, nine years after he died.
Voltaire ended many of those letters with a rallying cry, “Écrasez l’infâme” — “Crush the vile thing.” For him, the meaning of “l’infâme” could be extended from intolerance to superstition and injustices of all kinds. The opposing notion of tolerance shaded off into broader values, including civility — the virtue that we need so much today and that Voltaire identified with civilization. Voltaire saw the triumph of civilization over barbarity as the ultimate good inscribed in the historical process. He made the message clear in his most ambitious work, “Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations”— “Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations” — a survey of world history that he first published in 1756 and revised and expanded until his death in 1778.
What more can we aspire to in the age of Trump? The opposition to bigotry and the defense of civil rights once again call for a commitment to the cause of civilization. They require moral passion seasoned with wit.
I (Jason) wrote The Stack Overflow Comment Evaluator 5000™, a simple application that presents you with a comment thread from a post on Stack Overflow and asks you to rate each comment in the thread as Fine, Unwelcoming, or Abusive.
Prevalence of comment categories
If we take a majority vote on the rating of each comment (with ties going to the worse rating) comments on Stack Overflow break down like so…
Rating % of comments Fine 92.3% Unwelcoming 7.4% Abusive 0.3%
According to those of us deeply involved here and familiar with Stack Overflow, about 7% of comments on Stack Overflow are unwelcoming. What did some unwelcoming comments look like? These combine elements of real comments to show typical examples.
- “This is becoming a waste of my time and you won’t listen to my advice. What are the supposed benefits of making it so much more complex?”
- “Step 1. Do not clutter the namespace. Then get back to us.”
- “The code you posted cannot yield this result. Please post the real code if you hope to get any help.”
- “This error is self explanatory. You need to check…”
- “I have already told how you can… If you can’t make it work, you are doing something wrong.”
This stuff isn’t profane, hate, or outright abuse, but it’s certainly unwelcoming. Looking at majority voting is one approach, but the experience of being not welcomed is not a majority vote kind of thing; it’s deeply personal. What if we looked at the distributions of the ratings by individual?
- We at Stack Overflow want to more clearly frame our expectations around our community standards. Watch for updates about the evolution of our “Be Nice” policy into a fully articulated code of conduct.
.. The unwelcoming comments are valid criticisms, that can be expressed in a much more welcoming manner. The problem is large enough that StackOverflow is stereotyped and memed as being unwelcoming. That warrants attention, in my book.
.. I think you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. You’re thinking “let’s calculate a metric, and if that metric is below X, we don’t have a problem. Everyone who thinks there is a significant problem is wrong.”
Whereas I think the reality is: a huge number of people think there is a problem. Women in particular, who don’t contribute because they think it’s an unwelcoming place. So I’d reframe it as “let’s calculate a metric X, and now we know that at level X, we have a problem. We don’t yet know at what level we don’t have a problem anymore, but it must be less than X’.
.. SO claims to be a Q/A platform for professional and enthusiast programmers and for questions about programming that are tightly focused on a specific problem. So the questions must exactly tell that specific problem. This is often nothing what a beginner can do. So in my opinion SO is not a Q/A platform for beginners in programming. So this user group will always feel not welcoming here simply because it is not. Maybe SO should providing a special beginners Q/A portal additionally?
.. Maybe my personal bias is showing, but these 5 example “unwelcoming” comments don’t look like that to me at all. I’ve definitely gotten way harsher ones on my posts in the past and at no point did I feel them to be unwelcoming whatsoever.
.. As it was stated above, those examples of unwelcoming comments above weren’t actual comments pulled from SO; they were pieced together from little bits and pieces of unwelcome comments. You can’t identify the writers of the original comments, as they weren’t written by a user. There is no privacy violation. No one has been put in a hall of shame.
We probably disagree on this, but as I see it, people like Putin, Duterte, and Trump are not actually restoring law and order. I don’t think that is what authoritarian leaders do, it is what they promise. Remember that Nixon was the “law and order president”. As I see it, they are making a mockery of law and order, turning it into a tool that an authoritarian leader can use to advance his own interests, hound his enemies, protect his friends, hide his own actions, and enrich himself. I am extremely concerned about law and order, I just want to make sure that it applies to the president as well. I have some examples in mind, I want to avoid giving them now simply because I want to avoid putting hot-button issues into a post at this point of the conversation. We may well disagree on my examples, I would like to find a calm way to discuss them in order to be able to discuss and learn together.
In the long run, if I’m right and this becomes obvious to people, then they may judge both Christianity and the pro-life movement as political pawns with little moral authority if we are fiercely loyal to them. I think that’s what happened in Europe as the children of Germans realized that their Christian parents had generally supported the Nazis. I think the same might well have happened in the United States if Christians of all races had not marched together against racist laws.
I think it is really important to have some moral distance from any political leader. I’m probably a lot more concerned about Trump than you are.
.. I don’t think democracy “works” and I don’t think it’s stable in the long run. I don’t really sit around worrying about “how to make democracy work”, either.
.. I guess the difference is I’m not part of the “we” of trying to make political change happen – instead, I think political change happens because God is ultimately orchestrating the affairs of men. If men don’t voluntarily choose to stop doing a grievous sin like abortion (or world wars, or the Holocaust, or all manner of other evil), God eventually intervenes. And I don’t think God is constrained by the democratic process.
.. Ending abortion, or dealing with roving drug gangs, is definitely restoring some kind of law and order. It’s not an ideal, but it’s improvement in the right direction. And I think it’s a consequence of us more progressive-minded people being so obsessed with laws and rules that we end up letting criminals get away with turning cities into war zones because we were so fixated on the rights of criminals to due process and so forth.
.. I do pray that God will intervene, but I worry about American Christians anointing a strongman who promises to beat up our enemies. I see some religious leaders treating Trump as “God’s anointed”, sent to save America from our sins. The Trump Prophecy and many things coming out of Liberty University seem to approach idolatry, as does the billboard Jeremy mentioned.
.. If I were to advise Christians, I’d tell then to follow the Bible, which necessarily means not voting, not fighting in wars, not killing people, and so on. Regardless, abortion will only be ended through force. God is in charge of using that force. Persuasion doesn’t stop murder.
.. I think abortion will not be ended by force, unless you mean the return of Christ as an act of force. Abortion pills are too easy to transport, even if they were to become illegal.
A change of heart, that is conversion (not persuasion, although that too will help), is the best way to end abortions. Meanwhile, we can reduce abortions with easy free access to birth control, free prenatal care, free birthing centers, and reducing other financial barriers to parenthood.
While Trump is destroying the honor and reputation of the presidency, Senate Republicans are doing all they can to destroy the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.
.. They want a Supreme Court that will achieve their policy objectives — on regulation, access to the ballot, social issues, the influence of money in politics and the role of corporations in our national life — no matter what citizens might prefer in the future.
.. His confirmation will be the equivalent of handing the court over to the Heritage Foundation and the legal staff of Koch Industries.
.. It is characteristic of hypocrites to be unctuous and judgmental. How else to describe the attitudes of the GOP senators rushing Kavanaugh to the bench, and their defenders in the conservative legal academy who long to undo 75 years of court precedents?
.. when Democrats on the Judiciary Committee howled about rigged hearings and did whatever they could to bring more information to light, Republicans primly accused them of lacking civility.
.. The talk of civility is laughable in light of the Republicans’ refusal to give Garland — a judge whose quality Kavanaugh himself extolled — either a hearing or a vote. That was not just incivility, it was an abuse of power reflecting the political right’s determination to seize control of the court by any means necessary.
.. But by voting to confirm Kavanaugh, they would be ratifying everything in politics they claim to be against. This is not just about their pledges to protect the right to choose on abortion. It’s also a test of whether they mean what they say about wanting politics to be less partisan and more consensual. Caving in to the power brokers and ideologues on this will follow them for the rest of their careers.
.. If the Trump era produces a backlash so strong that a Democratic president and Congress pass breakthrough economic and social policies, conservatives will count on their court majority to block, dismantle or disable progressive initiatives.
.. This is a fight about democracy itself. Right now, democracy is in danger of losing.