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.