Civility and Survival
This is the second newsletter in a periodic weekly series on civility. The first installment is here. Thank you for reading, and if you feel so moved, please share — and perhaps, subscribe!
Last week, I offered a family story. A cousin had fallen into religious zealotry, and had become convinced the end of the world was at hand. He phoned ‘round the family to say his goodbyes and to plead one last time for our repentance. The answer was firm: no one in the family agreed with his apocalyptic vision; indeed, they repudiated it. And yet, this cousin was reminded that when the end did not happen, he would be welcomed back into the family without ridicule.
My family’s approach to this cousin modeled a particular kind of civility. When someone has fallen into error – millenarianism in this instance – we repudiate the error but separate it entirely from the identity of the person, and offer a path back. It was important that we promise to not mock, bait, or hector him when he came to his senses. That’s nice, but it’s not a template for coping with the current landscape that tempts us to incivility.
Tens of millions of people remain devoted to President Trump. The increased inevitability of a Biden Administration has done nothing to bridge the divide. My cousin set a date for the end of the world; when it didn’t happen, he was confronted with the reality of his foolishness and had no choice but to return to the fold. There is no similar epiphany approaching for the vast numbers on the other side; we cannot look to the heavens for resolution. So what now? How are we to remain civil and in relationship with those with whom we not only do not share a common politics, but a common framework for understanding science and evidence?
Most systems of organizing belief are evangelical: they wish, overtly or obliquely, that everyone could accept the same set of truths. This is true for Christians carrying out their “Great Commission,” who want the whole world to acknowledge Jesus; it’s true for Marxists, who want everyone to adopt the same set of notions about class struggle. It’s true for the descendants of the Enlightenment, who believe fervently that a comprehensive secular education will bring the globe from darkness into the bright sun of science and progress. Wars are fought and families rent asunder because of the conviction that there is no more central task than convincing the rest of the planet of the “right” way to live.
If there’s one thing that unites evangelists on left and right it’s that “error has no rights.” People who are wrong about things – like the divinity of Christ, or structural racism, or vaccines – must be either confronted or cast out. Civility is dangerous, because it allows error to persist, even to flourish. Most evangelists for Jesus or science or whatever will concede that civility is acceptable as a temporary tactic; it’s worth trying in order to gain an opening to a hardened or indifferent heart. An ex of mine majored in “missiology” at an evangelical seminary, and she spent countless hours reading and writing theory about how best to turn every relationship into an opportunity to witness for the Lord. Civility was an arrow in the quiver, a tool in the shed, but it was always just a means to an end.
If there’s one philosophy that comes closest to rejecting the sweeping claims of other faiths and systems, it’s the liberalism of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin’s great insight was that a liberal society must be built on acceptance of the persistence of irreconcilables. To be human, for Berlin, is to disagree. And not just to disagree about whether jam or butter was better with toast, but to disagree about the most fundamental issues of what it means to be human and how best to organize society. Anyone who thinks that the mass of other people will ever be converted to your particular system is deluding themselves. For Berlin, the whole liberal project is concerned with how to build a society where people with radically divergent, fundamentally incompatible views can live together without killing each other. To design a liberal society is to let go of your totalizing fantasies, the ones where you like to imagine how happy the world will be when everyone accepts the same truths that guide your life. (Berlin’s keen awareness of the dangers of “totalizing” started early: born into a Latvian Jewish family, he endured anti-Semitic pogroms and the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution before his family escaped to England.)
Berlin’s insight about liberal society identifies one of the cornerstones of civility: its deep realism about human nature. We should be kind and pleasant to people with whom we disagree because we know that many of these disagreements can never be resolved. Civility, rightly practiced, isn’t evangelical; it’s not an opening gambit designed to soften an opponent so that you can win them over to your side. You can be civil, of course, and still believe in trying to change hearts and minds. Civility doesn’t require that you give up on engaging other people in political or religious discussions. Just because truth is always plural and irreconcilables will be with us until the stars fall into the sea doesn’t mean that you can’t have a go at winning over Aunt Agatha or Cousin Wilberforce. Civility is not about giving up on persuasion – it’s about acknowledging that we must remain kind to the perpetually unpersuaded as well. Civility is not a rope with which to lasso those whom you consider ignorant and ill-informed; it’s a way of living together alongside those who will never see the world as you see it.
Sir Isaiah would not have been surprised to see that right and left no longer get evidence from the same sources. He would note that it has always been so. Boomers, suffering from Stage IV Nostalgia, may imagine that there was once a world where all hung equally on every syllable that fell from the lips of Walter Cronkite, but that memory is largely myth and wish. All that’s different now is that we possess the means with which to observe the antagonisms that were once better hidden.
Sir Isaiah was fond of quoting another philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who famously observed that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Civility starts with the recognition of that crookedness as permanent and intrinsic to the human condition. Civility is the means by which we live together despite that crookedness. When we are bewildered, exasperated, or frightened by our neighbors’ insistence that black is white or down is up, civility is the last best hope for continuing to live peaceably alongside them.
Civility isn’t just a luxury for those insulated from conflict. It is a fundamentally practical way of living in a world where irreconcilable differences will always, always, always be with us.