H.L. Mencken on 'Civility,' Improbably Enough

From a reader in North Carolina:

>>I'm sorry this is late to the discussion, but it took me a while to run down the quote from H. L. Mencken. I think about it often, but I wanted to get it right, as I think it sums up civility in public or private discourse.He laid down these rules doing a controversy with Upton Sinclair:

"[W]hen [a person] fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour-propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest -- and perhaps, after all, right."

These three assumptions about one's opponent, his decency, honesty, and possibility that he's right, seem to me the essence of civil argument. Just as important, I think, is Mencken's reason for civility. It isn't for the other person's sake, or even to ensure a good debate. A person is civil for his or her own good. Descent into incivility is demeaning to the uncivil person, not the opponent. Those who screech in the public forum may win the battle of a day. They may even win all the battles. But in the process, they have irreparably injured themselves.<<

This is an interesting quote from Mencken, given his known love for florid denunciations. So maybe it's useful as something to bear in mind during extended disagreements/discussions.

On the "useful to bear in mind" point: obviously people are always going to disagree, occasionally turn into "haters," get angry and unreasonable, and all the rest. That's life, and it's politics. But in the long-term ups and downs in the tone of political discussion, it's handy to have reminders or guidelines of better and worse ways to do things -- and this is one.

I was on a discussion of related themes this morning, on the Diane Rehm show, with Deborah Tannen of Georgetown, Jill Lepore of Harvard, and former (and I hope future) Rep. Glenn Nye. Online here.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In