Who is my Neighbor? Implications of the Christian Answer for Civility

I recently finished a weeklong seminar at the Witherspoon Institute, in Princeton, NJ, concerning common themes in the work of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Taylor. The seminar was illuminating (though often over my head!) and engaged important questions about human nature, individuals and society, ethics, religion and secularism. Though I found the discussions stimulating and the level of engagement inspiring, my favorite moment proved much more personal and came from an unlikely source.

I tend to have a high regard for successful academics, people who’ve “made it” in the cutthroat world of university education. Perhaps it’s their ability to reason at such a high level, or the fact that they’ve read (and in some cases written) so many books, or that they’ve managed to secure a tenured job in a world where hundreds apply for a single post. Whatever the case, I find myself admiring such people and perhaps viewing them as above the ordinary.

Yet, near the end of my seminar, something shattered that illusion beautifully.

I listened as one of our professors—a woman with two PhDs and who teaches at a world-class institution—broke through the wall of formal academic discourse, in order to share about something unusual: her church. Yet it wasn’t just the fact that she spoke about something so personal, so intimate, that struck me; it was what she said about it.

Her church is located on the outskirts of Chicago, in a particularly troubled neighborhood, where passersby might pose an inconvenience if not a danger. Nevertheless, the church teaches its members to be able to look at the strangers around them and say (in quiet, if not aloud):

“You are someone for whom Jesus died. You are made in the Image of God.”

Perhaps you’ve never sat through a philosophy seminar, in which case let me assure you: this is not the sort of thing one often hears—certainly not from tenured faculty at leading research institutions. Nonetheless, what interests me here is not the sheer novelty of my professor’s words or even their theological insight. Rather, what interests me are the implications of this way of thinking for our broader social life.

What would our society look like if we regarded our neighbor as “someone for whom Jesus died, someone made in the Image of God”? Like a child trying to wrap his arms around the world, I can’t grasp the full implications of that thought. Therefore, let’s narrow our subject a bit: what would our disputes look like, were we to see our neighbors in the way described?

This brings us to the realm of civility. Briefly, let me suggest a few implications that I think would have to follow, insofar as we seek to live out this understanding of our neighbor in the context of our disputes.

First, those who understand their neighbors along the above theological lines will find themselves constrained in important ways. If my neighbors really do bear the image of Almighty God, and if God really did love them enough to die for them, as the Christian gospel proclaims, then, even if I find myself in a serious dispute with those neighbors, I cannot pursue my dispute by whatever means I might like. Contrary to the old saying, all is not fair in love and war.

First and foremost, I must not resort to violence against my neighbor. That sounds simple enough, but a whole host of recent events show our propensity to do exactly the opposite.

Yet, I think the constraints imposed by this theological understanding of our neighbor go further than that. They extend to what I say and how I say it. I must refrain from insults, slander and that perennial temptation: the rumor mill. If the person with whom I’m disputing is absent and I am speaking with a friend, in private and in full confidence, even then I need to speak of the person in question with respect. Does the fact of my neighbor’s absence somehow change the status that person has as a Divine Image bearer and someone loved by God? Of course it doesn’t—in the same way that when I’m sleeping I do not cease to be a human being. As such, my obligation to constrain my disputes extends even in such cases.

However, lest one think that the theological understanding of our neighbor imposes merely a negative burden—a series of “Thou shalt not’s”—let me suggest some positive counterparts.

To the extent that I love God and seek to grow more like Him, I will want to love what He loves. If it turns out that He loves my neighbor, I will need—and want!—to love that person too. At the very least, I will recognize my need and ask for help to do so more fully. In a famous passage from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle writes:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13: 4-7).

Can you imagine if we brought these qualities to our disputes—whether in the newsroom or debate floor, the classroom or public square, online or off? What would our society look like if we extended the patience, kindness and regard for others described above, even as we disputed vigorously with our neighbors?

For those who do not regard their neighbor as someone for whom Jesus died, someone made in the Image of God, this may have seemed like an interesting (albeit hypothetical) exercise. Yet, for the millions of people who really do hold this view, I hope it gets us thinking.

I am one such person. By no means have I fully practiced the above ethic—not even toward my family, let alone perfect strangers or those I don’t like. I want to live it, though, and so should you. A society that aspired—however imperfectly—to live this ethic would be far better than the one we have at present. We might just find that we could bridge some or more of the yawning chasms that divide us and recover the basic goodwill needed to hold together our common life.


Civil Society and the Challenge for Public Discourse

I recently began a book by Princeton University professor Robert George entitled Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. The book is provocatively titled, to be sure, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. I have only completed a few chapters, but already I have found much to ponder on the subjects of civility and social health, broadly speaking. I plan to share some of those insights in the weeks ahead and hope that they might provide food for thought for readers, whether left, right or center.

My reading this morning came from a chapter called “The Limits of Constitutional Limits.” It concerns the question of how we, as members of a liberal democratic regime, can ensure that our rulers are themselves ruled—that is, that they exercise their power within certain, carefully defined limits: “rules they do not themselves make and cannot easily or purely on their initiative revise or repeal.”

Although George is a scholar of jurisprudence (and, incidentally, holds the same chair at Princeton that was held by Woodrow Wilson), and is therefore familiar with the various constitutional limits on power, he argues that these limits, taken alone, cannot prevent the state’s encroachment on civil liberties. We need something more. The people themselves must get involved, particularly through their participation in the institutions of civil society—namely, non-government organizations like the family, the church, private organizations and educational bodies that “provide a buffer between the individual and the state.”

“These institutions,” George writes, “sustain a culture in which political institutions do what they are established to do, do it well, and don’t do what they are not authorized to do.” Civil society does this by “inculcating knowledge and virtue” in its members and by providing “health, education, and welfare functions” that would otherwise fall to the state.

George’s point about virtue is especially interesting. He quotes John Adams, who said that “our Constitution is made for a moral and religious people” and “is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” George seeks to explain what, to our ears, may strike us as Adams’ perplexing and even shocking statement. We need virtue, George says:

“Because a people lacking in virtue could be counted on to trade liberty for protection, for financial or personal security, for comfort, for being looked after, for being taken care of, for having their problems solved quickly. There will always be people occupying or standing for public office who will be happy to offer the deal—an expansion of their power in return for what they can offer by virtue of that expansion.”

Hence the need for a virtuous citizenry, working together in various civil (that is, non-governmental, buffering) societies, to ensure that constitutionally-mandated limits to power remain in force. (Note: for those interested in a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between freedom and virtue, I highly recommend Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.)

This raises a problem, however. On the one hand, we the people must work together to prevent governmental overreach; we must be potters, as it were, shaping aberrations in the “clay” of our state back into their original mold. Yet, on the other hand, we ourselves are susceptible to being shaped by that same state, such that we become ill-suited for our task of reform.

George raises this point powerfully in a discussion about the nature of public discourse. He notes a 2008 incident involving Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford University legal and political philosopher, who returned to his home country of New Zealand to chide its parliament on the state of its discourse.

“Waldron,” George writes, “concluded by pointing to the possibility that the deficiencies of parliamentary debate may be at least partially compensated for by a higher quality of public debate, which could prompt the reforms necessary to begin restoring the integrity of parliamentary debate. But he warned that things could also go the other way. The corruption of parliamentary debate could ‘infect the political culture at large,’ driving public debate down to the condition of parliamentary debate.”

If that happens, then our public forums become places where, in Waldron’s words, “Debate is closed down…where the greatest victory is drowning out your opponent with the noise that you can bring to bear. And then the premium is on name-calling, on who can bawl the loudest, who can most readily trivialize an opponent’s position, who can succeed in embarrassing or shaping or if need be blackmailing into silence anyone who holds a different view.”

George calls this description chilling. I agree. It is also eerily familiar. Suffice it to say that our public discourse has by and large actualized the above description. Yet we needn’t continue.

We, who are reeling from the current state of political and civil discourse, can recognize the problem and refuse to participate in it. We can commit—in our families and religious organizations, classrooms and town halls, online and off—to practicing respectful, principled disagreement, the kind that brings clarity to controversy and clears a path toward reconciliation. In so doing, we can reclaim the kind of public discourse needed for us to work together to promote the health and, yes, even the liberty of our society.

Civility and Family Life

Have you ever wondered about the relationship between civility and family life? Should we view our family interactions as opportunities to practice civility and, thus, to condition us for the public square? Or should we avoid the sorts of disagreements that civility requires when we’re among the ones we love?

I took up these questions in a recent article with Public Discourse. In it, I argue that we need places where we can learn (or relearn) the practice of civil disagreement, and that family life is uniquely suited to serve as such a place.

Wrestling with Restlessness

The themes of rest and, more importantly, of restlessness, keep appearing in my experience of late. I’ve just finished a month’s vacation—a rare and precious luxury—at my parents’ log home in the Adirondack Park. Travelers have been seeking solace in this park for at least the last 150 years, so it’s hardly surprising that I would be thinking about rest. What is surprising, however, are my more frequent thoughts about restlessness.

The latter theme has arisen in my experiences:

  • Of climbing New York’s tallest mountain on a clear, temperate day, only to wish that I were at home, off my sore feet
  • Of finishing a beautiful kayak ride with my wife, with mist over the water and not a person in sight, only to want another
  • Of eating much-anticipated soft-served ice cream in a dish, only to long for a cone

In my conversations:

  • With my brother-in-law, who described a book he’s reading on the widely-noted gap in satisfaction between what we expect a purchase to give us—be it a TV, a car, a house—and what it actually provides
  • With my grandmother, about how, despite seeking for years to get my present job, I find myself already dreaming of what comes next

In things I’ve read:

  • Thoreau, in the opening chapter of Walden, describes the hoards of his contemporaries, who “are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” and who “lead lives of quiet desperation”
  • Charles Taylor, who, near the end of his A Secular Age, writes of the “number of ways in which our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” stirred by “the sense that there is something more”

Taylor’s words, which I’ve taken from the close of a chapter called “The Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity,” are haunting and warrant further space. Speaking of this sense of “something more,” he says:

“Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest      continues to surface. Could it ever be otherwise?”

All this talk about unrest or restlessness invites the question: What should we make of this experience? Is it an unhappy but inescapable aspect of human life, one that we try to bury as best we can or else embrace in Stoic resolution? As Taylor puts it, “Could it ever be otherwise?”

Some say yes. Their answer requires some context, however.

In his poem “The Pulley” (yet another piece that I’ve stumbled upon during my vacation), the 17th-Century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert makes a startling suggestion. He attributes our phenomenon of restlessness to God. God, says Herbert, deliberately withheld this blessing from us. Yet, far from being an arbitrary act of spite, the divine equivalent of a middle finger on the world, God withheld the gift of rest for our good.

Herbert puts the matter as follows, in God’s words:

“For if I should,” said he,

“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,

He would adore my gifts instead of me,

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;

So both should losers be.

This may sound strange to modern ears (or anyone’s, for that matter), but the idea is this: God, in his goodness, had already given us “a glass of blessings”—gifts like “strength,” “beauty,” “wisdom, honor, pleasure”—which, were these to join with “rest,” would prove so satisfying, so seemingly complete, that we would stop searching and simply rest content in ourselves. What’s the matter with that, you might ask? The problem is that our sense of satisfaction would be a lie: it would hide from us the fact that we are made for relationship with God, that in this relationship our true flourishing consists.

I was blessed to get braces as a teenager, to straighten my otherwise-crooked teeth. Yet before I could receive them, I had to have a horrendous number of teeth removed—upwards of nine. My mouth was simply too crowded. When it came time for the surgery, I received, in addition to Novocain, an ample amount of laughing gas. I remember lying in the dentist’s chair, “high as a kite,” as the saying goes. I thought the laughing gas was the greatest thing in the world. Never mind the fact that I had a pair of pliers in my mouth, along with a series of gaping holes and gushing blood. These I forgot or brushed aside in my happy delirium—sort of like we would do, had we been “drugged with ‘rest’” into believing we were complete, whole, without need of God. It’s a painful analogy, I know, but it captures the picture—if only in part.

Herbert concludes his poem in this way. Referring to the blessings he had given man, God says,

“Yet let him keep the rest,

But keep them with repining restlessness;

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,

If goodness lead him not, yet weariness

May toss him to my breast.”

This, then, is how the story concludes. It’s not just that restlessness keeps us from seeking fulfillment apart from God; rather, it “toss[es]” us to him. We see in restlessness the paradox of “The Pulley”: that, in pulling us down, restlessness in fact lifts us up—or, at least, points us to the One who can lift us up, should we ask him.

As St. Augustine, the 5th-Century convert and Catholic Bishop, wrote (in a passage I did not read this vacation): “You [God] have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”

Thus, in answer to Taylor’s question, “Could [our unrest] ever be otherwise?” Herbert and Augustine reply, yes, it can, if we but seek our rest in the One for whom we are made. As it so happens, Jesus himself spoke similarly, when he instructed his listeners to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).

This, then, is the culmination of my recent wrestling with restlessness. It comes not as a new insight but as a reminder, from fresh and unexpected sources. For those who have been following my blog thus far, this entry may seem out of place. How, you might ask, does this reflection on rest and restlessness connect with civility? In one sense, it clearly doesn’t. Yet, if we recall that one of civility’s chief fruits is clarity—insight into what others believe and why—then this reflection provides an instance of such clarity. At least I hope it does. It offers a historic, Christian perspective on the answer to an enduring human problem: the problem of restlessness. May we allow the pulley to do its work.

Finding the Balance: A “Civil” Position on Offending Others (Part 2)

In my previous entry, I raised the question of the relationship between civility and offensiveness. Can civil people—those who are committed to respecting their neighbors in the context of a dispute—wittingly offend those same neighbors? Or must they do all they can to avoid giving offense?

I sketched two popular answers to this question about the acceptability of offensiveness. The first, which I called the politically correct view, says that we must avoid offending others at all costs, especially those from historically marginalized groups. The second, which I called the hardnosed realist view, says that offensiveness is an inescapable part of life in a pluralistic society and therefore that we had better learn to deal with it. I then suggested that the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle.

In this entry, I’m going to propose what I see as the solution to the above question. The solution turns on a crucial distinction between two types of offensiveness—what I’m calling ill-meaning and well-meaning offensiveness, respectively. Ill-meaning offensiveness occurs when we speak or act with the intention of wounding another person (often, though not always, our conversation partner). Such offenses can be brazen or subtle, crude or sophisticated. What matters is not the style but the senders’ intentions: our express desire to cause harm.

By contrast, well-meaning offensiveness issues from good intentions. Those who commit such offenses do not wish to harm others; that they do so is, in some way, an accident. Such people aim to speak or act in accordance with what they believe is good or true or beautiful—it just so happens that those beliefs conflict with their neighbors’ in some way that creates offense. Perhaps they strike a nerve in those neighbors’ pasts, or they grate against one or more of their core assumptions. From the standpoint of the offended party, a well-meaning offense may sting just as much as its ill-meaning counterpart. What distinguishes this form of offense is not the response it generates but the fact that it originates from the sender’s pure motives.

Having distinguished these two forms of offensiveness, I am now in a position to state my thesis—namely, that civil people must avoid ill-meaning offense, but they cannot be expected to avoid all cases of well-meaning offense.

The first part of this thesis follows naturally from my conception of civility. According to my view, civility is the virtue we show toward others when we dispute their ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth. In practice if not in principle, civil people honor their neighbors’ worth. Yet, surely, it would be inconsistent with that worth to intentionally wound another person through ill-meaning offense. Therefore, civil people must avoid such offense. If and when they do commit one, they apologize. This answer shares at least some connection with the politically correct view above, insofar as those who hold that view insist on the intrinsic worth of all people and therefore demand behavior consistent with that worth.

Yet what about the second half of my thesis—the idea that civil people cannot be expected to avoid well-meaning offense? What makes this latter type of offense unavoidable? Let me suggest three things.

First, just as the politically correct view contains a kernel of truth, so too does the hardnosed realist view: we do in fact live in a pluralistic society, which, by its nature, makes offense all-but inevitable. To say that we are “pluralistic” is not simply to say that we are “diverse.” One hears all sorts of talk about, and celebrations of, diversity today, yet the diversity in view rarely extends to viewpoints, to ways of seeing the world. A panel of scholars discussed this fact in a May gathering at the American Enterprise Institute, noting what they perceive as a lack of viewpoint diversity in American higher education—the very institutions that often lead the charge in promoting diversity. Pluralism, in contrast, applies the adjective “diverse” to beliefs or viewpoints, specifically. It denotes a society whose members differ in their fundamental commitments, a difference which leads to widely different values and practices.

This brings me to my second point. Often, our differences of belief present us with incompatible positions. One could conceive of a pluralistic society in which members disagreed about, for example, their favorite color. I like green, you orange, you purple, and so forth. Reasonable members of this society will quickly realize that our differences of preference represent equally valid positions: the fact that I prefer green is consistent with your preference for some other color.

Not so with many of the things that actually divide us in today’s societies. Take religious positions, for example. Orthodox Christians claim that Jesus is God incarnate; Muslims, while they revere Jesus as a prophet, emphatically deny his divine nature; and Atheists reject both positions, since, on their view, God does not exist. Unlike the color example, these differences are not compatible. There must, of necessity, be a truth about the matter under dispute, a truth captured in the Christian, Muslim, Atheist or some other position.

And this brings me to the last of my three points. It is not just that we believe different things or even that those differences are often incompatible: it is the fact that we care about our particular beliefs that makes offense inevitable. I believe that the pine tree I currently see outside my window belongs to the coniferous or evergreen family of trees. Were you to contradict me on this point, calling it deciduous, I would think you were wrong, but your position wouldn’t offend me. Yet that is because the question of tree classification doesn’t matter to how I order my life, to my sense of who I am and of how I take the world to be on a fundamental level. It doesn’t affect my deepest convictions about the true, the good or the beautiful.

Contrast this with the point about Jesus’ divine nature, noted above. Since our belief about this question carries profound implications for a host of issues—indeed, for an entire way of life—a difference here has great potential to cause offense. Recall the recent dispute between Senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, regarding the latter’s fitness for duty as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In a senate hearing that caught national attention, Sanders opposed Vought’s fitness for duty because he objected to a theological position Vought had espoused in a blog post. “Objected” does not quite capture it; the senator seemed indignant. Vought’s position offended against some of his strongly held convictions about the nature of the world’s religions and of fitness for public service.

In short, because our society consists of people with differences of belief about fundamental issues, because these differences are sometimes incompatible (i.e., they cannot both be true), and because we care about the questions at issue, we cannot expect the civil person—or anyone, for that matter—to avoid all cases of well-meaning offense. Should Sanders, for example, have insisted that Vought renounce his claim about the theological position at issue, on the grounds that it offends Muslims and others, that request would itself be offensive to Vought and others who share his views, and who would feel like they were being asked to renounce a core conviction. Sanders would simply have shifted the offense from one group of people to another, not uprooted it altogether.

One final point, before I close. You may have notice that I qualified the second part of my thesis above, when saying that civil people “cannot be expected to avoid all cases of well-meaning offense.” This raises the question whether there are cases where we can be expected to avoid well-meaning offense. Suppose (1) your motives are pure, but (2) you know something about your conversation partner that makes it likely that she will be offended by what you say or do. How should you proceed in such cases? Can you still call this a case of well-meaning offense, or does your knowledge implicate you in the pain that follows?

No, it does not implicate you. In other words, yes, you can proceed—however, three caveats are in order. First, it can be genuinely hard to predict whether someone might be offended by your actions. The Sanders/Vought controversy provides a case in point. In the days following the incident, Ismail Royer, from the DC-based Center for Islam and Religious freedom, defended Vought from Sander’s criticism. Although Royer is a Muslim, and although Vought’s blog post concerned what he sees as Muslims’ “deficient theology”, Royer writes:

“[Vought’s] statements were not crude bigotry, but a passionate defense of his creed            entirely within the realm of discourse of reasonable, civilized men and women… Taken out of context, and to the sensitive ear of those unaccustomed to religious      discourse about absolute truths, Vought’s statement that Muslims are “condemned” sounds harsh. As noted, however, it was part of a broader theological argument. Nowhere does he conclude that Muslims should be hated or treated differently from non-Muslims.”

Royer’s response demonstrates the difficulty of making judgments abut the likelihood of offending others based on mere demographic information.

Second, just because our intentions are pure does not mean we should abandon good judgment. There may be a time and place where we need to speak or act in ways we think likely to offend others, but that doesn’t mean we should do so indiscriminately. By wisely navigating social settings in search of a more-opportune time, we stand a chance of minimizing undue offense.

Yet, third, when the situation demands it, as when some important matter of truth or goodness is at stake, we need to speak or act according to our conscience. Where possible, however, we should do so in a way that demonstrates our good will. It was the knowledge of this good will, despite deep differences of belief, that enabled Royer to defend Vought as he did. To the extent we can demonstrate our own good will by our words and actions—by how we speak and not just what we say—we may be able to minimize offense and perhaps even to make an unlikely ally.

Finding the Balance: A “Civil” Position on Offending Others (Part 1)

In response to an earlier post, a friend of mine noted that sometimes “a necessary and true word bluntly spoken is condemned as uncivil because someone’s feelings were hurt.”

His comment raises important questions about how the civil person ought to view the prospect of offending others. Can we be civil—that is, can we seek to respect others’ intrinsic worth in the context of our disputes—while at the same time offending those persons, even wittingly? Or must civil people seek to avoid offensiveness, as part of their commitment to civility? To put the matter more generally, what ought to be our perspective on offending others?

It seems to me that our society offers two popular and conflicting answers to the above question. On the one hand, we find what I’ll call the political correctness view. This view asserts that we must avoid offensiveness at all costs—or, at the very least, that we must not offend people from historically marginalized groups. Offensiveness issues from narrow-mindedness or insensitivity or bigotry and thus must be rejected.

I once spoke with a college professor who suggested that he and other members of the administration have an institutional obligation to police against offensiveness in the classroom. He recommended confronting students who make offensive comments, either on the spot or after class. My discussion with this professor transformed a view that I had often seen represented in the media into a living reality.

Against this position, we find what I’ll call the hardnosed realist view. This view sees offensiveness as an unavoidable part of life in a pluralistic society and therefore claims that we had better learn to deal with it. Those who seek to expunge offensiveness from the public square, whether for themselves or others, are being overly sensitive. Such “buttercups” need to “suck it up.”

Doubtless, there are other positions on offensiveness in the public square, nor do proponents of either view live them out perfectly. We sometimes insist on avoiding offensiveness for those groups for which we have a special affinity, while not hesitating to offend those groups we don’t like. Similarly, we may favor hardnosed realism toward ideological opponents while balking when opponents direct such unfiltered comments at us or at our friends. In short, these are not perfect categories, but I think they approximate the main positions on offer. In the drama of our common life, these characters get the most lines.

Both the political correctness view and the hardnosed realist view grasp some aspect of the truth, yet neither is fully satisfactory. The political correctness view rightly seeks to protect the historically marginalized, yet it overlooks important details—about society, human psychology, even about the nature of truth claims—which make its basic position untenable. The hardnosed realist view, on the other hand, while seeking to avoid these errors, endorses a mode of discourse that renders persuasion all-but impossible and instead only deepens our divisions.

We need a third option—a moderate or “civil” perspective on the question of offending others, which avoids the above pitfalls while retaining their insights. In my next entry, I will offer one such option. Along the way, I will flesh out some of my above claims about the problems with the two, dominant positions.

“Vision gives vibrancy to civility” (Part 3)

In my previous two entries, I offered two very different answers to the question “Why care about civility?” I first argued that civility secures justice for the vulnerable: when we commit to civility, we commit to treating others in accordance with their intrinsic worth, at times when we are most tempted to disown that worth. Next, I argued that civility fosters clarity about the ideas that divide us. It does this by inviting dialogue, through which we learn what our neighbors really believe, why they believe it, and what is in fact the case about the issue at hand. Without civility, dialogue becomes next-to-impossible—either because we will avoid it altogether, or else because passions like anger or resentment will so affect our minds as to make the dialogue fruitless.

Here, I wish to conclude the present series by offering a third reason for why we ought to care about civility. Civility promotes reconciliation. It is a peacemaker. This third answer builds upon the other two. It represents the natural culmination of the justice and clarity that civility provides.

How is it that civility promotes reconciliation?

Perhaps you’ve had an experience of being treated civilly by others in the midst of some dispute. Despite opposing your views—even forcefully!—these people refused to turn their attack on you. They responded in such a way that suggested you have value apart from those views, and they rejected any form of dispute that would deny that value. If you’ve had this experience, then you know its ability to create good will toward those you might otherwise regard as enemies. Those who act civilly become the kind of people about whom we say, “We certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, but there is something about this person that I respect.”

We must not undervalue this effect. To be sure, such good will does not, by itself, end the dispute: you remain divided about the issue at hand. Nevertheless, good will keeps your disagreement from devolving into character assassinations and even violence—especially when the disagreement in question is very great.

This, then, is how my point about “justice” promotes reconciliation. Yet, civility promotes reconciliation in an even deeper way. The second way stems from my point about “clarity.

Take the case of Max and Susan, members of opposing political, moral and/or religious camps, who view people from the other camp with deep suspicion. They find themselves, one day, seated beside each other on a crowded, cross-country flight, with nowhere to flee when their conversation hits “turbulence” at 30,000 feet. Whether for prudential reasons or due to principle, Max and Susan decide to continue their dispute—and to do so civilly.

Given the circumstances, what outcomes might we expect from Max and Susan’s dialogue? I find it highly plausible to think that it will reveal at least some amount of misunderstanding between them—either about what the other person believes on some controversial subject, or else about why he or she believes it.

Take the first of these possibilities. Suppose, for example, that Max discovers he was wrong about Susan: she does not believe what he, upon first learning of her affiliation, had assumed she would believe. This could have happened for various reasons. Perhaps the two groups use different terms; or they emphasize different aspects of what is, in essence, the same message; or Max had based his prior beliefs on rumors and oversimplifications. Whatever the case, Max is now in a position to reconcile with Susan: they do not disagree after all.

Suppose, though, that no such discovery arises. Max does in fact disagree with Susan about the controversial point in question. What then? Well, Max may still discover that Susan’s reasons for holding her view are different from what he had thought. This outcome seems more likely, and it could take various forms. In the worst case, Max at least clarifies what those (poor) reasons are, so that he stands a better chance of countering Susan’s view in the future. After all, how can Max hope to persuade Susan or others like her, if he bases his critique on reasons she doesn’t possess?

A better outcome would be that Max finds some insight into Susan’s reasons that reveals a possible area for compromise. Better still, he may discover that Susan’s reasons are in fact respectable—wrong, perhaps, but still respectable—and thus that she is not, at least, “depraved” for holding her view. This insight might kindle some natural amount of good will towards Susan that didn’t exist before.

Best (or worst?) of all, Max may discover that Susan’s reasons are not only respectable but compelling and, thus, that he finds himself persuaded to join her side.

Note where we’ve arrived. In some cases, the clarity that civility provides has made it possible for Max to reconcile with Susan outright. In other cases, that reconciliation has been more limited or even conditional: i.e., Max now knows how he could persuade Susan, if he pursues further debate. Whether great or small, each of these counts as a victory, bringing Max one step closer to reconciliation.

In closing, let me ask this question: What if many of our contemporary debates—even some of the nastiest and most volatile—involved some level of misunderstanding, of the sort depicted above? If so, then this would suggest a roadmap for full or partial reconciliation. It suggests that if we commit to civility, we stand a chance of ending some of our present animosity and of replacing it with good will.

Oh, how we need that good will today! As the old saying goes, those who will the end will the means. For us in our time, that means we must be willing to practice civility.

“Vision Gives Vibrancy to Civility” (Part 2)

This is the second in a three-part series that seeks to show why civility matters—why we should care about, commit to and cultivate civility in our time.

In my first part, I argued that civility secures justice for the vulnerable—for bearers of intrinsic worth—in situations when we are most tempted to violate that worth, as when disputing our deepest differences. It does so because civility simply is the virtue of disputing others’ ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth. That is what I mean when I speak of civility.

Now, suppose you deny that we have this intrinsic worth. What then? Should you discount civility? I argue that you should not, for there remain two strong reasons to commit to civility even if you reject the above argument. The first of these has to do with clarity, the other with reconciliation. I address the first of these answers in this entry.

Civility fosters clarity about the ideas that divide us. Or, to put it differently, it lends itself to the acquisition of truth. Truth about what? About three things:

1) What our neighbors actually believe about x (as opposed to what we think they believe);

2) Why they believe what they do about x (i.e., their reasons for belief); and

3) What is in fact the case about x

Each of these is a unique and important item of knowledge, and I will consider them in turn. First, though, we will be better able to appreciate how civility fosters clarity if we consider the effects of its opposite: incivility.

Recall a time when you’ve had a disagreement with someone about a subject of great importance and that person responded uncivilly. Perhaps they mocked you for your position, or shouted you down, or cursed at you, or cut you off mid-sentence. More than likely, their incivility did one of two things: either it made you withdraw from the conversation altogether, or else it reduced your ability to think clearly and fairly about the issue at hand—rousing your anger, bruising your pride and prejudicing you against their position. Thus, whether your exchange ended abruptly or else continued, in neither case did it promote understanding (except, perhaps, about the character of your interlocutor).

In contrast, when someone treats us civility, their behavior encourages us to continue the conversation, to focus on the ideas that divide us (rather than defending our own worth), and to do so with greater clearness and fairness of mind than we would have otherwise.

This brings us back to the three items of clarity I noted above. Take the first of these: the idea that civility helps us to learn what our neighbors actually believe about some issue (and vice versa). Clarity of this sort may sound easy enough to come by, but it is not. In an age of sound bites, tweets, polarization, ideological reporting and inattentiveness, we cannot simply take for granted that we understand our neighbors’ positions on difficult issues. Often these views are complex, involving some level of nuance. Yet, even if they don’t, our methods of learning about those views—short of direct conversation—are liable to misrepresent those views in some notable way.

Civility counters this. It provides a kind of “due process” for people in the public square, affording them the chance to correct the record if they’ve been misrepresented or misunderstood. In their classic work How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren claim, “the great majority of disagreements…can be resolved by the removal of misunderstanding or ignorance.” Whether or not misunderstanding applies in “the great majority” of cases, it seems to me widespread enough to warrant concern. If we are to identify—much less to correct—misunderstanding, we need civility.

Suppose, however, that you have not misunderstood your neighbors’ basic position about some controversial issue. What then? Can you still profit from civility? You can, for it may be the case that you still don’t know why they believe what they do: perhaps their reasons for said position and what you take to be their reasons differ in some important respect. This is the second item of clarity, noted above.

We must not overlook the importance of “reasons” in determining the character of a belief.

Two people may hold what, on the surface, look like an identical position, yet have arrived at it for vastly different reasons. Before we can judge the goodness or badness of each one’s view (let alone its reasonability), we need to know those reasons on which it stands.

Immanuel Kant recognized the need for such information, albeit when judging actions. In Part I of his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant notes that the shopkeeper who treats his customers fairly may do so for prudential reasons (i.e., because fairness is good for business), or he may do so because he recognizes his moral obligation. Though both actions look the same, their moral status differs. The same holds true in the realm of beliefs.

Third and finally, civility promotes clarity about what is in fact the case about some position. At the end of the day, we don’t just want to know what our neighbors believe about x or why they believe it; we want to know whether x is true or good or reasonable, etc. Yet, in order to access this knowledge, it helps to have outside perspectives—to dialogue with others who challenge our assumptions and expose our blind spots. By itself, this process can be painful, especially when it involves subjecting our deepest beliefs to criticism. When someone not only offers criticism but does so uncivilly—now the process can be too hard to bear!

Civility lessens the “sting” of dialogue, thereby encouraging us to enter conversation with those who oppose our views and to reap the fruit of those exchanges. We need this dialogue if we are to recon with the world as it is and not just as we fancy it to be. And therefore, we ought to welcome that virtue—civility—that makes it easier.

In my next entry, I will offer a third answer to the question “Why care about civility?” which builds on the first two responses.


“Vision gives vibrancy to civility” (Part 1)

I have taken the title for this entry from a line in the late Richard John Neuhaus’s book The Naked Public Square. Neuhaus begins the chapter from which this line is taken by acknowledging that, “civility, which has to do with how we handle our disputes, can become a code word that exacerbates our disputes.”

Neuhaus recounts a conversation he had with an acquaintance, following a less-than-civil address by a well-known speaker from the political right. The acquaintance defended the speaker’s manner by saying that civility “has become a synonym for fudging,” a political maneuver used by those seeking to maintain “control.” Thus, by implication, those who aim to upset the status quo—even in defense of what is good and true—can justify being uncivil.

Neuhaus, of course, rejects this argument. He does so, however, not from ignorance of the way the term “civility” has been used, but rather because he holds a different vision for that term. “Vision gives vibrancy to civility.” It takes a word that, for many, has become “an empty husk,” and makes it fruitful once again.

Like Neuhaus, I have a vision for civility. This vision has come into focus as I’ve reflected on civility and realized what it can do—the role it plays in a healthy society. Even so, I realize that the virtue is hard work. It is deeply countercultural. In an age like ours, where few people model it or expect it us, one naturally wonders, “Why choose civility at all?”

This is a fair question, and it deserves an answer. I’d like to take the next few entries to attempt that answer. Overall, I will argue that there are (at least) three reasons to value civility and to commit to it, though it be costly and inconvenient. First, civility secures justice for the vulnerable. Second, it fosters clarity about the ideas that divide us. And third, it promotes reconciliation.

Take the first of these arguments, the idea that civility secures justice for the vulnerable. What has civility to do with vulnerability? To see this, consider its context: civility is a virtue of disputes. When you and I disagree about something, it becomes possible for one or both of us to act civilly. Now, if our disagreement concerns the weather or some such topic, then this poses no risk. However, were our conversation to turn toward deeper waters, broaching our differences of belief on, e.g., questions of politics, ethics or religion—the sorts of things on which we base our lives—now the risk is real indeed. Such questions “hit close to home.” Here, more than anywhere, disagreement tends to arouse our passion, which clouds our judgment and makes us more willing to mistreat others than we would at any other time. In these instances, we become truly vulnerable.

Now, at this point, an obvious suggestion presents itself: Why not simply avoid such questions? If we can’t talk politics or religion with our neighbor, why not just stick to the weather?

In some situations, this may indeed be our best option; one must be sensitive to matters like time, place and the openness of one’s audience. The problem is that we cannot avoid conversations about difficult questions indefinitely. Ours is a pluralistic society: we live among, depend on and attempt corporate ventures with people whose fundamental beliefs differ from our own. Whether consciously or unconsciously, our deepest beliefs influence the decisions we make in those settings, and they may conflict with our neighbor’s. Therefore, when the situation calls for it, we have got to be able to talk about the things that divide us—and to do so safely.

To repeat, I have claimed that civility secures justice for the vulnerable. Thus far, I have addressed the point about vulnerability, but what about justice? Where does that come in? What I have to say here is perhaps the most important reason for civility, and yet, for many, it may seem the least believable. To see where justice fits, we need to recall how I defined civility in my previous entry. There, I said that if you and I disagree about some matter, I show you civility when I dispute your ideas in ways that respect your intrinsic worth.

These last three words are central to the point about justice. My argument is simply this: All human beings have intrinsic worth. This worth does not depend on what we believe or say or do; instead, it follows from who we are as creatures who bear of the image of God. The fact that we have this worth does not mean we get everything right and, thus, that there is no room for disagreement; however, it does mean that when we disagree, we must choose only those means that are compatible with human worth. When we treat others uncivilly—when we shout them down, cut them off, mock, assault or otherwise belittle them—we violate their worth. Therefore, we must not be uncivil. To do so would be to fail to show others the respect they’re due.

Some readers will not accept the above argument. Perhaps they deny the intrinsic worth of all people, claiming instead that our value hinges on our believing or doing the right things. Or perhaps they think that I’ve built this value on a false foundation (i.e., “the image of God”). Fair enough. I’m going to have to say more if I hope to convince such readers on this point. Indeed, I hope to do so in later entries!

Yet many people do share my belief about intrinsic worth, and it is to them that I appeal at this point. To be sure, the obligation to be civil does not stop with Jews, Christians and others who affirm the biblical doctrine of the Imago Dei: if indeed all people have intrinsic worth, then civility is an objective obligation for everyone, being a just response to the immeasurable value in our neighbor. Nonetheless, the obligation at least starts with those who believe this doctrine. If our neighbors can expect to find civility anywhere, surely they should be able to find it among the community of those who affirm their intrinsic worth.

This, then, is my first argument for the importance of civility. Civility secures justice for the vulnerable—for people made in the image of God, who for that reason possess intrinsic worth, a worth we’re tempted to deny in the midst of disputes about our deepest beliefs. This, in itself, provides strong reason to choose civility. Yet, it does not exhaust our reasons. There is more to the story, which I will address in my next entry.

What is Civil America?

This is a blog for people who care deeply about the health of our society and who want to promote that health. When I speak of the “health” of our society, I have in mind our relational health. In particular, I mean our ability to work through deep-seated differences of belief and practice, without “killing” each other in the process.

A key ingredient in social health is civility—key and yet increasingly scarce today. Like people who stagger for want of water, our communities stagger for want of civility. Unless we find some, and soon, we will not long survive.

I write this blog hoping that it will play some part in cultivating civility in our time. To cultivate civility—that is the goal that drives this project.

Yet, even as we suffer for lack of civility, many of us do not realize our need. Civility has a bad reputation in certain circles today. Far from seeing it as a “solution” to our social ills, many see it as part of the problem. As Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy has put it, civility is “deeply at odds with what an invigorated liberalism requires”—traits like “intellectual clarity” and an “insistence upon grappling with the substance of controversies.”

Others make an even stronger charge. Ferdinand Mount, writing as far back as 1973, speaks of an emerging “generation” of people for whom “the tradition of civility is an empty husk.” It is “nothing but a covering for oppression and deceit.” Mount, channeling these critics, concludes that, “The real aim of the man who represses himself in the guise of civility is to repress others without seeming to do so.”

Charges like these may be warranted, or they may not: the answer depends on how we understand civility. Therefore, let me offer a definition. When I speak of civility in this and future entries, I have in mind the following concept:

Civility is the virtue we show toward others when we dispute their ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth.

Civility presupposes that we disagree. Rather than calling us to avoid the fact, it bids us continue—albeit in a certain way. As the sociologist Os Guinness has argued, civility “is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences.” Instead, Guinness calls it “a robust, substantive concept that is a republican virtue, critical to both democracy and civil society, and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic.”

Suppose, for now, that civility really is a virtue. Even so, how do I hope to cultivate it? Or, to put it differently, what can you expect from this blog? In the entries that follow, I shall aim to do four basic things. They are:

(1) To reflect in greater detail on the nature of civility. This involves further unpacking the concept of civility defined above. I will dig deeper into questions like: what civility is (and isn’t), toward what (or whom) it is due and in virtue of what, whether we ought to limit civility, and why it is so important in the first place. We need to consider such questions not for curiosity’s sake but because once we understand civility we will be more inclined to choose it.

(2) To remove obstacles to the exercise of civility. One such obstacle is the general lack of good will in our culture toward those with opposing views. This lack of good will has many sources. Some of it derives from popular misunderstandings about the views and/or motivations of people who differ from us. Some of it comes from fallacies that muddy our public debate, and which need correcting. Still more of it stems from the oversimplifications that arise in our era of sound bites and 140-character tweets. I aim to address obstacles like these, that they may no longer hinder our good will for one another. 

(3) To call on thought leaders—not least in the church, education, media and politics—to commit to civility as a matter of principle. The institutions to which these leaders belong often have values (let alone a practical need!) that call for the embracing of civility. As the late sociologist Edward Shils notes, “There are certain roles in society in which civility is particularly important.” We need prominent people filling such roles to demonstrate civility, and “their civility should furthermore be visible.” Such demonstrations have a “radiative or reinforcing effect.” They make civility contagious. How we need that contagion today. 

(4) To model civility in all I say. Some readers may utterly disagree with everything I post. Nonetheless, I hope that no readers—whatever their views—will walk away from my entries feeling demeaned. As I defined civility above, so too am I committed to disputing other’s ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth. Because I believe that such worth really is intrinsic—not contingent on what we believe or what we do—I am bound, by principle, to show civility toward all. By seeking to model civility in this way, I hope that the experience of it can inspire support for the virtue, even where my arguments fall short.

Whether you agree with my starting assumptions or not—and whether you approach the issues of our day from the left, the right or somewhere in the middle—welcome. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.