Any society that runs on civility will succeed, and any society that runs on thuggishness will fail.
Globally, democracy is in decline. The same goes for both domestic and international peace. There are numerous explanations. Which is the largest?
Numerous experts attribute this to various forms of polarization, including left-versus-right, elitist-versus-populist, blue-versus-red, educated-versus-uneducated, nativist-versus-cosmopolitan, Sino-Russian autocratic-versus-“Western” democratic, and so on.
I’ll argue that the contrast between civil and thuggish behavior is more significant than any other. And the issue we face in the US, Europe, Russia, Brazil, China, and the UN is that thugs have recently been winning practically everywhere.
The word “thug” is Hindi and originally referred to groups of ruthless robbers. Hooligans, bullies, and other brutish people are now referred to by this word. Rappers have given the term a sarcastic twist, but we’ll let them decide how to use it.
Thuggishness is essentially intimidation coupled with the threat of violence. Wherever politeness fails, it takes hold. After World War I, criminals flocked to the streets in nations like Germany or Italy, hitting or yelling at anyone they didn’t like. They went by several names, including Blackshirts, Brownshirts, Free Corps, Red Fronts, etc. Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Night Wolves (a Russian motorcycle group), and other packs are modern analogs.
Politics, however, is arguably just a façade, regardless of whether people revere Mussolini, Lenin, Trump, Putin, or any other leader. Thuggishness is the root issue.
The public square can be vandalized by thugs without having to be physically aggressive. The aggression only needs to be subtle, verbal, or inferred. This is to ensure that no type of assault can destroy civics and dialogue, two essential components of a civilized community.
The Latin and Greek roots that gave us terms like “city” and “politics” also gave us the phrases “civil” and “polite.” The verb “converse” originally meant “to turn toward,” with the intention of connecting and, ideally, getting a little bit closer to the truth, maybe even coming up with answers to issues that are shared.
Such congregating is characterized by nuance, contradiction, subtlety, ambivalence, and humor, not by bugs.
But when gangsters join a conversation, they don’t come to talk, connect, learn, comprehend, or listen. To rule is their goal. Truth is irrelevant; winning is everything. The malware that corrupts civics is poor faith.
Fake “debates” and “conversations” are the outcome. They frequently devolve into aggressive whataboutism. I lied? What about all the lies your guys spread, though? Any argument’s merit ceases to matter. The thugs’ ability to fire ad hominem rounds “at the person” standing next to them and the artillery cover their crowd provides are the only things that matter.
Whataboutism and other verbal bullying techniques are nothing new. They were already a key theme in the Socratic debates (at the time, the so-called Sophists were the rhetorical thugs), and they also played a significant role in the trial that led to Socrates’ execution by a jury of 500 Athenians.
But the infection has become more dangerous thanks to modern media. Over many years, Fox News and its imitators on talk radio and television in the US have polished and mastered verbal thuggishness. The ball was picked up by social media. Twitter conversations frequently devolve into name-calling and shouting matches. If the Brownshirts and Blackshirts of the previous century beat people, today’s trolls “cancel” or “doxx” their victims.
There are two issues with verbal thuggishness. The first is the importance of the atmosphere. Violence can rapidly escalate into physical altercation if thugs or their leaders have sufficiently inflamed the group with hostile words. Outrages like the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 are the outcome.
The second justification is that verbal violence is an example of a “epistemic vice.” As bad money drives out good, so intellectual humility, or the capacity to acknowledge our cognitive limitations, admit when we’re wrong, adapt or adjust our beliefs, and have an open mind, is replaced by “epistemic virtue,” a phrase used by academics to describe to intellectual humility.
The vices increase while the public and intellectual virtues, which the American Founding Fathers placed such a high value on, diminish. Conspiracy theories are becoming more popular, and a cynical disregard for the truth are symptoms. Power is the sole remaining value.
Is there an anti-malware patch if thuggery is a virus that affects open societies’ operating systems? I’m afraid not really. Our holdouts of politeness are our sole lines of defense.
The majority of people may still be sensible and intellectually modest people, or “virtuous” people. However, they are frequently inaudible. They must begin voting with their actions in order for democracy and peace to have a chance, including influencing TV ratings, rejecting lies and manipulations, and more. The thugs must begin to fall behind. According to history, these battles could end in either favor.