Freawaru — thank you for the Geswæpabinn. We really needed it.
It’s easy when you’re arguing passionately about something to feel the other person is stupid, dumb or just plain idiotic. Maybe in other places on or off-line insults and ridicule have been the usual coin of trade. However, here it’s different. We in the IDEA club have consistently felt that’s it very important to argue logically without resorting to ad hominem attacks or other insulting jibes.
I remember a couple years ago seeing a piece in Tompkin’s County Herald Examiner (it was actually a reprint of an address by Edwin J. Feulner at the 2004 Hillsdale Commencement) that succinctly stated this idea. In his address Feulner compared the broken window theory of crime to the breakdown in civility.
The whole address deserves to be read, but I’ll just repeat a couple parts here. Feulner says;
The broken window is their metaphor for a whole host of ways that behavioral norms can break down in a community. If one person scrawls graffiti on a wall, others will soon be at it with their spray cans. If one aggressive panhandler begins working a block, others will soon follow.
In short, once people begin disregarding the norms that keep order in a community, both order and community unravel, sometimes with astonishing speed.
Police in big cities have dramatically cut crime rates by applying this theory. Rather than concentrate on felonies such as robbery and assault, they aggressively enforce laws against relatively minor offenses — graffiti, public drinking, panhandling, littering.
When order is visibly restored at that level, the environment signals: This is a community where behavior does have consequences. If you can’t get away with jumping a turnstile into the subway, you’d better not try armed robbery.
Now all this is a preface. My topic is not crime on city streets, rather I want to speak about incivility in the marketplace of ideas. The broken windows theory is what links the two. . . .
. . .What we’re seeing in the marketplace of ideas today is a disturbing growth of incivility that follows and confirms the broken windows theory. Alas, this breakdown of civil norms is not a failing of either the political left or the right exclusively. It spreads across the political spectrum from one end to the other. . . .
. . .This is how the broken windows theory plays out in the marketplace of ideas. If you want to see it working in real time, try the following: Log on to AOL, and go to one of the live chat rooms reserved for political chat. Someone will post a civil comment on some political topic. Almost immediately, someone else will swing the verbal hammer of incivility, and from there the chat degrades into a food fight, with invective and insult as the main course. . .
. . . Incivility is not a social blunder to be compared with using the wrong fork. Rather, it betrays a defect of character. Incivility is dangerous graffiti, regardless of whether it is spray-painted on a subway car, or embossed on the title page of a book. The broken windows theory shows us the dangers in both cases.
Therefore, let us argue passionately about ideas, but in the heat of an argument let’s remember to respect each other’s (and our own) dignity. Let us remember the difference between an insult and an argument. Let us lay our hammers down.