Can we be civil enough to save democ­racy?

We don’t have to be nice to peo­ple we dis­agree with, says his­to­rian Teresa Be­jan. We just have to keep talk­ing to them.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Out­look@wash­

In our di­vided na­tion, it seems ci­vil­ity has gone out of fash­ion. In his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, Pres­i­dent Trump called for Amer­i­cans to pri­or­i­tize open­ness, hon­esty and the need to “speak our minds.” At the time, the pres­i­dent’s de­mo­tion of the theme of ci­vil­ity (which was rhetor­i­cally cen­tral to his pre­de­ces­sors) shocked no one. More sur­pris­ing, per­haps, is the speed at which par­ti­sans on both sides — in­clud­ing some of his fiercest crit­ics — have taken his ad­vice to heart. As Democrats set­tle in for a long win­ter in the op­po­si­tion, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s high-minded en­co­mia to con­ver­sa­tional virtue have been re­placed by calls for con­sci­en­tious in­ci­vil­ity as a sign of re­sis­tance to the new regime.

Con­fronted with an am­a­teur politi­cian de­ter­mined to bring his dis­tinc­tive brand of Twit­ter­based ad hominem to the White House, what’s a mem­ber of the op­po­si­tion to do? For some on the left, an ex­ten­sion or even es­ca­la­tion of the war of words char­ac­ter­is­tic of the bit­ter cam­paign sea­son seems like a rea­son­able re­sponse. When the pres­i­dent at­tacks a mem­ber of the ju­di­ciary as a “so-called judge” or wishes Happy New Year to his “many en­e­mies,” ci­vil­ity ap­pears, at best, a loser’s game. At worst, go­ing high at each new low is a moral mis­take that will only serve to nor­mal­ize the sta­tus quo. Now, sup­pos­edly, is the time to call a spade a spade — or a fas­cist, as the case de­mands. A trou­bled ob­server might note that the dis­tance be­tween suc­cess­fully la­bel­ing some­one a fas­cist or a white su­prem­a­cist and le­git­imiz­ing the use of force to si­lence his un­civil speech is short, in­deed. Even the New York Times has sug­gested that it may be okay to punch a Nazi.

As our wars of words threaten to give way to swords, the his­tor­i­cally minded may de­tect an un­canny echo of an early mod­ern cri­sis of ci­vil­ity. When Martin Luther posted his “95 Th­e­ses” to the door of a church in Wit­ten­berg, Ger­many, he not only launched the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion, he also in­spired gen­er­a­tions of con­sci­en­tiously un­civil evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians and a sur­feit of sec­tar­ian polemic that would shat­ter the unity and con­cord of Western Chris­ten­dom for good. Like Trump, Luther was a vir­tu­oso of in­sult who took full ad­van­tage of new com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies (in this case, the print­ing press) to pop­u­lar­ize his mes­sage and cut his more es­tab­lished op­po­nents down to size. Both friends and foes fol­lowed suit. When Luther dubbed the pope the “An­tichrist” and Catholics “anti-Chris­tians,” the la­bels stuck for cen­turies. And when the pope re­sponded by anath­e­ma­tiz­ing Luther as a heretic, he (lit­er­ally) “de­nom­i­nated” Martin’s fol­low­ers “Luther­ans” so that they might share in his pun­ish­ment and shame.

Then as now, many ob­servers blamed the epi­demic of in­ci­vil­ity for the vi­o­lence that fol­lowed. The philoso­pher John Locke noted that the “dis­grace­ful ap­pel­la­tions” with which sec­tar­i­ans on all sides de­mo­nized their op­po­nents had the same de­hu­man­iz­ing ef­fect as the an­i­mal skins with which the Ro­mans had cloaked the early Chris­tians be­fore feed­ing them to lions. Ac­cord­ingly, author­i­ties across Europe and the Amer­i­cas cracked down on re­li­gious con­tro­versy by ban­ning in­sult­ing “de­nom­i­na­tions” like “Huguenots,” “Papists,” “Bap­tists” and “Pu­ri­tans” in the name of so­cial har­mony.

Yet the pros­e­cu­tion of in­ci­vil­ity was of­ten a con­ve­nient pre­text for per­se­cu­tion: Athe­ists were ac­cused of in­dif­fer­ence to the “of­fen­sive­ness” of their dis­course to be­liev­ers, while in Eng­land, ad­ver­bial def­i­ni­tions of heresy — for ex­am­ple, as an er­ro­neous opin­ion “ob­sti­nately” or “fac­tiously” ad­hered to — fell dis­pro­por­tion­ately on un­pop­u­lar mi­nori­ties such as An­abap­tists and Quak­ers. In th­ese cases, com­plaints about the man­ner of dis­agree­ment quickly re­duced to the sub­stance, and laws meant to pro­tect dis­senters from in­sult be­came a much more ef­fec­tive means of shut­ting them up, with one Pu­ri­tan preacher, Thomas Wat­son, com­plain­ing that all self-styled “civil per­sons” were usu­ally mo­ti­vated by “a se­cret an­tipa­thy against the ways of God.”

To­day, sim­i­lar sus­pi­cions abound on both sides of the aisle. For a virtue aimed os­ten­si­bly at fa­cil­i­tat­ing dis­agree­ment, ci­vil­ity more of­ten func­tions to shut down dis­sent, as in the re­cent si­lenc­ing of El­iz­a­beth War­ren on the Se­nate floor. That case il­lus­trated how ac­cu­sa­tions of in­ci­vil­ity func­tion to place the ac­cused be­yond the pale of rea­son­able or re­spectable de­bate. In­deed, the phrase “be­yond the pale” — which orig­i­nated in the early mod­ern pe­riod as a ref­er­ence to the ge­o­graph­i­cal Pale (from the word for “stake” or “fence”) around Dublin that sep­a­rated the “civ­i­lized” An­glo-Protes­tants from the “bar­barous” Ir­ish Catholics be­yond — is it­self in­dica­tive of the prob­lem. It sug­gests that Repub­li­cans were on to some­thing dur­ing the Obama years when they ac­cused Democrats of us­ing claims of in­ci­vil­ity to side­step ar­gu­ment and score po­lit­i­cal points. While the dan­gers of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness cited by some Trump sup­port­ers may be overblown, there is no doubt that the pres­i­dent de­rives much of his power as an avatar for the wide swath of the elec­torate that con­tin­ues to feel si­lenced and stig­ma­tized by their self-styled bet­ters as “de­plorables” be­yond the pro­gres­sive pale.

Still, if his­tory con­firms how eas­ily calls for civil dis­agree­ment can jus­tify sup­pres­sion and ex­clu­sion, it also demon­strates how es­sen­tial ci­vil­ity is in nav­i­gat­ing heated dis­agree­ment — al­beit ci­vil­ity of a par­tic­u­lar and pe­cu­liar kind.

Here, mod­ern Amer­i­cans could stand to learn a thing or two from the 17th-cen­tury founder of Rhode Is­land, Roger Wil­liams. Far from be­ing a proto-mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist, Wil­liams was ex­iled from Mas­sachusetts be­cause his the­o­log­i­cal in­tol­er­ance and evan­gel­i­cal zeal made even his fel­low Pu­ri­tans un­com­fort­able. He knew first­hand how ac­cu­sa­tions of in­civil- ity could be used to per­se­cute, sup­press and ex­clude. Nev­er­the­less, in Rhode Is­land, he took up the ban­ner of ci­vil­ity and in so do­ing cre­ated the most tol­er­ant and in­clu­sive so­ci­ety the world had ever seen.

The key to this ap­par­ent para­dox was Wil­liams’s com­mit­ment to what I call mere ci­vil­ity. As a min­i­mal, of­ten grudg­ing con­form­ity to so­cial norms of re­spect­ful be­hav­ior needed to keep a con­ver­sa­tion go­ing, this ci­vil­ity falls far short of the rea­son­able­ness and mu­tual re­spect its pro­po­nents usu­ally have in mind. Wil­liams knew from ex­pe­ri­ence that the “bond of ci­vil­ity” nec­es­sary to hold a tol­er­ant so­ci­ety to­gether was less a mat­ter of avoid­ing in­sult than cul­ti­vat­ing the men­tal tough­ness to tol­er­ate what we per­ceive as our op­po­nents’ in­ci­vil­ity, to live with them and con­tinue to en­gage, even when we think them ir­re­deemable. “As if be­cause bri­ars, thorns, and this­tles may not be in the gar­den of the church, there­fore they must all be plucked up out of the wilder­ness. Whereas he that is a briar, that is, a Jew, a Turk, a pa­gan, an anti-Chris­tian, to­day, may be (when the word of the Lord runs freely) a mem­ber of Je­sus Christ to­mor­row.”

Ac­cord­ingly, Rhode Is­land wel­comed Catholic “anti-Chris­tians,” as well as Jews, Mus­lims, Amer­i­can “pa­gans” and Protes­tants of all stripes. Wil­liams was pretty sure they were all go­ing to hell and even told them so; still, he thought one must “go out of the world” en­tirely to avoid keep­ing com­pany with such “idol­a­tors.”

As prac­ticed by Wil­liams, mere ci­vil­ity was more of­ten an ex­pres­sion of mu­tual con­tempt than mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion. We might rec­og­nize it as the virtue gov­ern­ing those un­pleas­ant but - un­avoid­able in­ter­ac­tions with ex-spouses and bad neigh­bors, as well as any­one who voted for the other gal (or guy). But even mere ci­vil­ity can be quite de­mand­ing: In at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand other minds on the model of our own, peo­ple make sense of dis­agree­ment by con­clud­ing that our op­po­nents are stupid, big­oted, evil or even in­sane. Yet mere ci­vil­ity de­mands that we keep the dis­agree­ment go­ing, no mat­ter how dis­agree­able, to con­tinue the bat­tle of words with­out re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence. Judg­ing by the cri­te­ria of mere ci­vil­ity, Trump’s worst in­frac­tions rest less on his Lutheran tal­ent for in­sult than on his record of us­ing his wealth and po­si­tion to bully his crit­ics. As vic­tims of civil si­lenc­ing them­selves, his sup­port­ers must speak out against th­ese ef­forts and de­fend the right to free and frank speech for their op­po­nents as well.

As Amer­i­can pol­i­tics re­sem­bles the sel­f­righ­teous sec­tar­i­an­ism of the Re­for­ma­tion more and more ev­ery day, the temp­ta­tion on all sides to give up on ci­vil­ity is un­der­stand­able: Calls for ci­vil­ity can serve as swords as well as shields, and they can of­ten be abused to put an end to dis­agree­ment rather than en­able it. Nev­er­the­less, re­ject­ing the idea of ci­vil­ity al­to­gether would be a se­ri­ous mis­take, be­cause aban­don­ing our co-ci­ti­zens in fa­vor of the much more agree­able com­pany of the like-minded is what got us into this mess in the first place. If we are to break the self-per­pet­u­at­ing cy­cle of epis­temic clo­sure, com­pla­cency and self-con­grat­u­la­tion, we must em­brace Wil­liams’s mere ci­vil­ity as a com­mit­ment to us­ing our words with, as well as against, our op­po­nents. To live to­gether, we must be able to talk to one an­other; the fate our own tol­er­ant so­ci­ety hangs in the bal­ance.

Teresa Be­jan is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal the­ory at Ox­ford and the au­thor of “Mere Ci­vil­ity: Dis­agree­ment and the Lim­its of Tol­er­a­tion.”



ABOVE: Pres­i­dent Trump hasn’t al­ways em­pha­sized ci­vil­ity, in­stead lev­el­ing at­tacks at his crit­ics. BE­LOW: Roger Wil­liams, who founded Rhode Is­land in 1636, wel­comed peo­ple of var­i­ous faiths to his colony, even though he be­lieved they were damned.


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