The topic of civility in political and public discourse is not new, but after the 2016 election, civility has become a key buzzword. Articles have been written, panels held, and Senator Marco Rubio even took to the senate floor this week to give an eloquent and impassioned defense of the idea (even if the specific application of it here is up for debate).
Writers here at Shared Justice have been among those calling for a recommitment to civil discourse. In a recent article, quoting author James Davis, Kelsie Doan describes civility as “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree.” The definition of civility is fluid, falling somewhere between politeness and empathy.
Although President Trump’s campaign was, and his administration continues to be, uniquely crass and combative, it would be amiss not to recognize the collective coarsening of public and political discourse in our country. As we sit at a crossroads in American politics and look at where the last 30 years of discourse has gotten us, it’s disappointing. Folks across the ideological and political spectrum recognize that for our democracy to flourish, we have to somehow figure out how to better listen to each other and work together.
Richard Mouw puts forward the phrase “convicted civility” as a goal for citizens, especially Christians, to aspire to in public discourse. The idea is that in a pluralistic society, one must maintain the unique convictions with which others might disagree, but do so in a way that respects other voices and includes them in the conversation. Not only is this a noble goal in that it aims at honoring the image of God in others, but functionally, it is the only way that a pluralistic society can work.
In a society with divisions as deep and disagreements as fundamental as ours, I’m afraid we’re asking too much of the language of civility. Civility assumes an unspoken set of boundaries in which we can appropriately agree or disagree. However, at this moment in history, we can’t even agree on what civility entails. Calling for civility won’t do us any good if we each have a different idea of what is and isn’t acceptable in the realm of civil discourse. Are there some convictions that are fundamentally uncivil?
For example, the following twitter exchange demonstrates this tension around the topic of race:
Writer Vann Newkirk responded with the following comment:
For Newkirk, the boundaries of civility don’t include the marginalizing of people. Civil discourse does not have room for ideas that infringe on the rights and humanity of others. To hold a conviction that is “racist” is not something that can be discussed with civility. But even if this premise is agreed upon, the question then becomes, how do we determine what is racist, what is outside the bounds of civility, and who gets to determine that?
These fault lines of civility can be found all over the place. Leading up to the recent Women’s March on Washington, journalist Emma Green wrote a piece highlighting the ideological diversity among the participating groups, particularly pointing to the participation of both pro-life and pro-choice groups.
However, in response to Green’s article, the organizers of the Women’s March put out a statement disassociating from the pro-life organizations. This prompted Vox to follow-up with an article titled, “Can you be a ‘pro-life feminist’?” Many pro-choice advocates argue that taking a pro-life, or as many of them would say, anti-choice, stance is a position that infringes upon the rights of women; that a pro-life conviction cannot be held with civility.
In times like these when the social and political fabric of our country is stretched thin, there will be more conflict than usual at the seams. At these seams, a simple commitment to civility will not be enough to keep the whole thing from tearing apart. Simply calling for people to be more civil is not going to heal the deep racial wounds born by our country, nor is it going to smooth over fundamental disagreements about what it means to be human, among a host of other divisions.
Civility cannot be the end goal. If civility is our aim, we will be disappointed even if we meet the mark. Our goal must be something larger. Whether we speak of it as the common good, as the beloved community, or, as we at Shared Justice would speak of it, public justice, it is this larger vision of our common life, which politics is a key part of, that we should set our sights on.
Civility is useful only in that it helps us move towards this larger aim. We should not idolize civility or treat it as a silver bullet to our cultural and political conflicts. There is a danger in using civility as a way to paper over deep disagreement and injustice, to go back to the earlier example with racism. Calls for civility, especially from those in positions of power, must always be met with a healthy skepticism.
However, when approached as a means to an ends rather than an end itself, civility plays a vital role in our public life. Functioning politics requires a certain civility. There need to be boundaries about what is and isn’t appropriate to say, ways of acting that are applauded or frowned upon, and certain beliefs we consider not to respect the dignity of all people.
Civility helps nudge us away from our most basic impulses like tribalism and violence. Civility creates a space for listening and the exchange of ideas. Civility, in its richest form, is about honoring the image of God even in those we vehemently disagree with.
-Andrew Whitworth is a recent graduate of Taylor University and alumni of the Trinity Fellows Academy. He lives in DC working to build flourishing political communities.