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.