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.