Pete Davidson And The Dark Side Of Civility

Civility: it’s the new dirty word. If you’re a progressive or know progressives you’ve probably heard the word spat in a way that drips with hatred and scorn, often by people who have never so much as shoved another human being but are very, very, very vocally for visiting violence upon people they personally identify as Nazis.

But is civility so bad? Yeah, probably. At least the way that we mean it these days, a way that was personified in the terrible Saturday Night Live segment with Dan Crenshaw this weekend. A quick catch-up in case you have been mercifully unaware of this brouhaha: Pete Davidson, the Lil Xan of SNL, made fun of then-candidate Dan Crenshaw for having one eye (or more accurately for his intense looking eye patch). The world, always looking for things about which to be mad, got up in arms. The next week Crenshaw came on SNL, mocked Davidson in return, and got an apology.

That’s great, right? I mean, I’m a Buddhist who believes in restorative justice, so isn’t this like the best possible outcome from the whole thing – a moment of unity and compassion and forgiveness? You might think that… if you didn’t know Dan Crenshaw’s policies.

Dan Crenshaw is a racist, or at the very least he seeks the votes of racists. He was the moderator of a fringe racist Facebook group that promoted QAnon and Pizzagate, as well as featured deeply unfunny racist memes and statements. Either Crenshaw believes these things or he wants the votes of people who believe these things, and at a certain point there’s no difference between those two.

His policies in general are exactly the kind of anti-human trash you expect from the modern GOP. He lost his eye in war but he’s a major hawk, he’s all about reducing corporate tax rates even as the current tax cuts balloon the deficit, he’s one of those ‘Free Speech!’ guys who probably calls liberals snowflakes and yet managed to get so sore about SNL’s joke.

Davidson was wrong to make fun of Crenshaw’s appearance. But SNL was wrong to give Crenshaw a platform upon which to preen as a ‘reasonable’ Republican, when he isn’t. His policies are unreasonable and Trumpian, and he either is or courts racists.

The thing we don’t understand in the modern political world is that the choices aren’t fist fight or roll over. There’s a middle way. We can disagree strongly, we can actively work against people, while also maintaining decency of word and action. And when we overstep the line, as Davidson did (a little. Let’s be really honest, it wasn’t that big of a deal, and SNL caved to the bipartisan world of outrage addicts) we can apologize without condoning the harmful actions of the people we are working against.

This SNL episode is instructive in that it shows us both ends of the situation – don’t mock other people for their gender, race or looks but also don’t give a rising demagogue the platform from which to burnish his phony ‘unifier’ credentials. Find the middle ground. Davidson could have (but honestly should not have) issued an apology and left it at that. Hell, he could have said “I should never have made fun of Dan Crenshaw’s eye patch – that’s lazy and cheap comedy, and anyway, I have this racist Facebook group he belonged to that I can use instead.”

You don’t have to hate someone, but you also don’t have to love them in the way that we often think about ‘love.’ We should love Dan Crenshaw in the way that we would love a sick or wounded animal, as that is what people with conservative ideologies are. They are hurting in some way, and they take that hurt and they hurl it out at others in an attempt to be rid of it. Imagine the fear and confusion you’d have to feel in order to look at a caravan of refugees slowly trudging towards the United States and honestly believe it’s a danger to us (Crenshaw is anti-caravan). I feel compassion for these people with their clouded and unpleasant worldview. But just as I feel badly for a wounded animal that is snarling at me, I’m not about to let it bite me. I love that animal, but not enough to give it a big hug, because that wouldn’t work out well for me and it wouldn’t help the animal. I would try to find a humane way to help that also kept me safe. I wouldn’t just shoot the animal, but I also wouldn’t take it into my home and let it run free. I’d find a middle way.

We have this dualistic view of the world that we take into the political arena, and it’s not helpful. The answers don’t lie on either pole, but rather somewhere in the middle. Yes, this sounds like centrism, the dirtiest of words for modern progressives, but these people are often blinded by the dualism. The reality is that we need to continuously navigate, to constantly be in motion between the two poles. Standing on one or the other doesn’t work; the world is like a car that drifts slightly left – you have to keep adjusting the wheel as you drive. The goal should be to stay away from extremes on either end. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE hit both extremes two weeks in a row, but in doing so helped illuminate for us a middle way that could be more productive.

Anyway, back to civility: it’s sort of like politeness, a concept that is good and helpful but also ripe for abuse. We SHOULD be polite (when people complain about PC culture they’re often complaining about being polite), but we also shouldn’t be such politeness extremists that we let other people walk all over us and never say anything. So it is with civility – yes, we should be civil, and try to engage in ways that don’t harm others. But civility doesn’t mean ‘give equal time to all views, no matter how heinous’ or ‘ignore the hurtful policies of others in the interest of not making waves.’ Civility means standing our ground and fighting as hard as we can without using hatred, violence, cruelty or harming anyone. That’s real civility. And that should be what separates us from the ‘bad guys.’