I was having dinner with my friend-and-sexual-associate not too long ago, and we got into a discussion about civility versus decency, which, if you’ve read our Inflammatory Writ, has been a hobbyhorse of the proprietors of this website for a while now. Her point was that people are more likely to take you seriously if you don’t use bad words and argue in good faith, and mine was that some people simply aren’t worth arguing with — since their minds will never change — and can simply be told to fuck off.
I understand that this opens me up to criticism from the right along the lines of, “Fuck off, libtard,” and I’m perfectly fine with that. I think that’s a legitimate criticism, all things considered. But I only think it’s legitimate because it fundamentally expresses the truth: to wit, the right-winger and I will never agree on certain issues, and there is basically no point in discussing those issues with each other. So, “Fuck off”? Gladly. Why waste each other’s time?
My audience, however, isn’t (I hope) on the fence about issues like LGBTQ rights, or global warming, or the military-industrial complex’s negative effects on American foreign policy, or the disaster that is deregulated capitalism. If you are, can I please request that you kindly fuck off? We have nothing to talk about. These issues are urgent, and I profess absolutely no regret for being earnest in my advocacy for the far left position I take with regard to each. The Overton window either moves left or right, after all. I confess to hoping that I do some small service on behalf of making our national discourse more amenable to left-wing political views.
Which brings us — AS ALL THINGS DO — to William Lloyd Garrison, who expressed my position considerably more succinctly than I’ve been able to do so here:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. [Bold added.]
I’ve got “never give an inch” tattooed on my left arm. In one respect it is an ironic statement on the foolhardiness of brooking no compromise — which is, I would argue, the central theme of the book from which it was derived. That is, I don’t think Kesey was endorsing the notion that one should never give an inch, even if his protagonists lived and died by the slogan. But in another respect, it speaks to the meaning of core principles. What do you stand for? To what extent are you willing to back it up? And most importantly, where do you draw the line in the sand?
Ultimately, like it or not, you have to draw it somewhere. You don’t, of course, if you’re trying to make a living in the Tom Friedman/David Brooks version of the universe where intellectual consistency means a pay-cut. But you do if, like most of us, you’re simply trying to be a decent human being. To do so requires staking out positions and making arguments, regardless of how popular or unpopular they make you. Believe it or not, I have considerably more respect for a principled bigot than a pundit who tries to play both sides of an argument and ends up defending that bigot. While the bigot and I may never agree about anything, at least I know that a gentle “Fuck you” adequately expresses my point. With the pundit, one is tempted to mistake smarminess for an argument, when in actuality it’s simply a ploy to mask cowardice and intellectual dishonesty.
Taking a stand is important. Knowing what you believe in is important. Having principles is important. And, crucially now, making compromises is important, too. But with compromise, you always have to be playing the long-game, and you have to have an idea of what audience is worth playing games for. There are simply some people you’ll never be able to reach. In the meantime, never give an inch.