We've seen this movie before. I have already delivered my criteria for on-line civility, while noting that the virtue itself is somewhat overrated. I have come to believe nothing a year later that subtracts from the truth of that post. I still believe that a gentleman's only duty is to never offend anybody unintentionally and that the real challenge is to "retain the form of civility while in full process of being bloody offensive to someone on whom genuine civility would be wasted".
That said, I was moved today to leave a lengthy comment at Olaf's place which describes more discursively than does last year's post the way I approach civility and define its limits. Given that I've been invited to "take a shower" after my last post by the ever-ironically Puritanical Tomm, an importation of that comment might be both germane and timely. Apologies to those who've already read this at Olaf's.
Some context: Olaf mentioned that he's been "inspired" to try to moderate the partisanship of his critiques and to refrain from making sweeping, demonising generalisations about his ideological opponents (except "hippies" and "counter-cultural" types; they're still in his cross-hairs!). I told him not to try too hard. Here's a slightly edited version of my comment:
Would we still be reading Swift's A Modest Proposal if it were a clinical, respectful, "fair and balanced" review of British trade policy in Eighteenth-century Ireland? Fuck that. An hyperbolic rant about callous Whigs serving up Irish babies au jus? Now that's an instant classic.
We should keep in mind that not all generalisations are illegitimate. Some are defensible, while others require vigorous substantiation. For example, I would feel free to say that the vast majority of earnest, committed CPC supporters are economic and cultural continentalists. Now, this view may be contested as a generalisation (in fact, it is), but I doubt if I would be at a loss for relatively persuasive proof. The same could be said for the view that most committed Liberal supporters favour strong, bureaucratised gun control: I think the burden of proof would be on someone who controverted that assumption. Likewise, can we credibly suggest that most Taliban militants are misogynists? I think so. Generalisations must always be deployed carefully and honestly, but I'm not sure that one can or should place them under total proscription.
Ethical (rather than ideological) generalisations are more worrying, and perhaps these are what you specifically wish to target. If so, you're really pleading for what's known as "parliamentary language", one of the breaches of which is the attempt to "impute motives" to an opponent.
As a kid, I found this issue puzzling: I couldn't understand why it was unparliamentary to base an argument on your own (presumably honestly derived) assumption about what your opponent meant to accomplish through his words and deeds. I'm not sure I fully understand it even now, but I think the rule is a purely functional one, designed to keep debate focused: if you assume the guy is malicious, and if you persuade the House of your view, you then get to call the guy an "asshole" with impunity. If you're prevented from acting on your assumption (which may even be correct), you're limited to arguing that the guy is wrong, and that he needs to amend his policy.
Again, though, context is crucial. Is it credible to say that members of the CPC, NDP, BQ, or LPC actually wish to inflict harm on others? Of course not. Is it true that LPC and CPC government policies have hurt people? Of course it is.
The question becomes, then, is it valid to impute motives (and profanely, as I often do) to those government gestures that are definable not just in the abstract (e.g. tax rates, trade policy, Senate reform, etc.) but in their concrete, undeniable effects? Is it valid to call someone an "asshole" (or a party a "party of assholes") when he or they are indifferent or even gleeful before the catastrophic consequences of party policy? The answers are clear, in my view.
Take the case of Adelrazik, about which I'm passionate. In a parallel universe, I'm not sure I would feel compelled to impute motives to a government that brought in a bill making it illegal for Canadians placed on the U.N. no-fly list to return home if travelling abroad. Would I think the bill misguided? Yes. Draconian? Sure. I wouldn't call the party a bunch of "assholes", though--perhaps more a bunch of jurisprudential amateurs who need a crash course in constitutional law.
Now, in our universe, do I feel free to impute motives to two governments (Martin's and Harper's) who have effectively stripped a citizen of his dignity because of a situation either one could have changed at literally the stroke of a pen? You bet I do. This is one occasion when being wrong bleeds into being an asshole, and I feel not the slightest reservation about pointing that out.
Ultimately, those who are unwilling to impute motives under any circumstances are forgetting a key political distinction-- the difference between basically well-meaning legislators whose faults are grounded in incompetence and inexperience and venal hacks motivated by fear, ignorance and gratuitous misanthropy. It's a fundamental difference, and it's the only electorally meaningful one for political orphans like me. It's the difference between the tragi-comic but harmless Dion and the disciplined but odious Harper. The ethical implications of that difference explain why I could grumblingly tolerate the former and why I despise the latter.