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.