Recently a friend asked me, with what I thought was a hint of suspicion in his voice, why my writing was so “apolitical.” It’s not the first time it’s happened, but it always surprises me. I’ve written about military policy under both President Obama and President Trump. I’ve questioned what we’re doing and tried to write about what flawed policy looks and feels like to those tasked with carrying it out. To me, this is inescapably and obviously engaged political speech.
But to my friend, a smart guy who nevertheless spends a surprising amount of his time online coming up with inventive ways to crassly insult his political enemies, there was something lacking. Something to do with my inclination to be “unfailingly polite,” as he called it. I try to avoid making personal attacks, or casting my arguments in the typical good/evil binary of partisan politics. My friend is a veteran of a tough deployment to Afghanistan. He’s acutely conscious of how thin our public discussion of the wars has been. And, more than anything, he’s acutely conscious of the ways our collective failure as a society to demand serious oversight of the wars has direct, physical, violent impact on people we know and care about.
If you look back on the human waste of the past 17 years and are not filled with rage, is there not something wrong with you? And if you want to be honest in public debate, if you don’t want to engage in the kind of lies and obfuscations and doublespeak proliferating across our body politic, don’t you have to let that rage slip into your speech?
It’s a fair point. Rage seems like a perfectly natural and justified response to our broader political dysfunction. From health care to tax policy to climate change, we are failing to meaningfully address issues whose impact can be measured in human lives. And invitations to civil debate can sometimes be nothing more than a con carried out by malign actors within the system. The conservative entertainer Ann Coulter used to play a game where she’d say something horrible and then, when questioned about it, shift to a thinly connected but defensible argument, like when she claimed on the Today show that she’d written that a group of politically active 9/11 widows were “enjoying their husbands’ deaths” only to call attention to how they were “using their grief in order to make a political point.” The game, one suspects, is less about sparking debate than indulging in a kind of performative contempt. So why play that game, when the simple extension of a middle finger is both easier and more honest? It will, at the very least, be more fun.
But performative rage is fun for both sides. A few months ago, I did a reading in Brooklyn with an author who’d written a harrowing indictment of our border policy. But because the author was once a Border Patrol agent, a group of young people showed up to protest. Rather than a thoughtful discussion in which an insider explained how the U.S. brings its power to bear on the vulnerable, the audience sat through an often comic display of self-righteous slogan chanting. At one point, an audience member began cursing the protesters out in Spanish, ending his rant with, “Are white people always like this?” I could feel the audience’s politics ticking slightly rightward. I doubt any immigrants were helped by the spectacle.
That kind of engagement in the public sphere takes the hard pragmatic choices of governance, in which we must make decisions about a set of complex issues for which we have imperfect information and no perfect solutions, and substitutes one simple question: Is my political adversary repellent? Or, even more to the point: Am I better than them? And the answer we want to give ourselves to that question is almost always yes.
Rage is a dangerous emotion, not simply because it can be destructive but because it can be so easily satisfied with cheap targets. Like my friend who picks fights online, I’m a veteran. I know people who have been injured or killed overseas. I’ve seen the damage bombs wreak on the bodies of innocent civilians. And, yes, it fills me with rage. But if that rage is to mean anything, it means I cannot distract myself with the illusion of adjudicating past wrongs with artfully phrased put-downs. In a world where we are still at war, the most important question is, What do we do now? There the moral certainty of my rage must be met with humility about the limits of my knowledge.
I’ll never forget the journalist Nir Rosen, who’d become something of a darling of the antiwar left for his well-informed criticisms of U.S. Middle East policy, delivering a blistering attack in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations two months after I returned from Iraq. Everything we had done during the 13 months I’d spent overseas, it seemed, was morally corrupt, counterproductive and dangerous. But when then Senator Joe Biden put the ball in Rosen’s court by asking, “Based on what you’ve said, there’s really no hope, we should just get the hell out of there right now, right?” Rosen was stumped. He admitted that he didn’t actually know what should be done, that withdrawal might lead to a spike in sectarian violence and that “it could be Rwanda the day the Americans leave.” As a knowledgeable observer of a complex war, Rosen knew enough, despite his first impulse, to know he didn’t have the answers.
Civility is a style of argument that implicitly welcomes response. It is a display of respect and tolerance, which make clear that you are engaging in a conversation, not delivering a last word. Unlike contempt, which generally seems less about your targets than about creating an ugly spectacle for your own partisans to enjoy, a civil argument is a plea to all fellow citizens to respond, even if in opposition. It invites the broader body of concerned citizens to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, to correct the flaws in my argument and to continue to deliberate in a rapidly changing world.
Anytime we as a nation act in the world, we are met with a host of second- and third-order consequences, sometimes consequences of greater significance than what we initially set out to fix. The invasion of Iraq, and the rise of jihadism that followed, taught us that. Debates about how to respond to Saddam Hussein had to be followed by debates about the insurgency, the breakdown of governance, the value of international aid vs. military action, the rising influence of Iran, the costs of inaction in Syria, and the escalating refugee crisis. Critics of today’s policy may have useful information for tomorrow’s problems. Which means we should engage them in a style of discourse that isn’t about “destroying” them but about inviting them to respond.
Whether this leads to electoral victories is another question altogether. The civil debates where good-faith participants collectively grope toward better answers to our most pressing challenges are happening in small corners of the public square. Meanwhile, we have a President who came to office flinging insults. Clearly, stoking rage and contempt in the public square can work. It excites us. It gives us courage to act in the face of uncertainty. If instead of hesitating before the other and acknowledging that we do not fully know them or their motives or the extent of their virtues and vices, we reduce them to the least charitable caricature possible. Then we feel on certain ground. But we’re never on certain ground. And while abandoning a process of thoughtful deliberation can win you power, what it can never do is give you a hope of using that power wisely.
This appears in the November 05, 2018 issue of TIME.