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.