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

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/01/hl-mencken-on-civility-improbably-enough/69712/