I proclaimed 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. In this Civility Project I want to highlight concrete examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, we will become more civil toward others.
For my first post in the Civility Project, I want to draw attention to a December 2013 piece by Brandon Ambrosino in The Atlantic titled, “Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Homophobe.” The article’s subtitle clearly articulates Ambrosino’s main argument: “Some people just aren’t sure about marriage equality—but their reasoning isn’t necessarily a reflection of their character.” (This article and Ambrosino’s generous tone sparked the idea for the Civility Project.) Ambrosino is a gay man who advocates for full recognition of same-sex marriage. His willingness to acknowledge the moral character of his opponents comes as a breath of fresh air in a debate in which hard lines are becoming the norm. Ambrosino responds to a piece on The Huffington Post by Paul Raushenbush declaring anyone against gay marriage is anti-gay. Ambrosino writes:
As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.
In the article, Ambrosino concretely practices civility. He seeks to first understand his opponents’ positions—he wants to know their arguments and how they reached their conclusions. At the same time, Ambrosino is clear that he believes his opponents are wrong for not supporting gay marriage and he finds their arguments sorely lacking. He does not take civil discussion to mean we have to ignore our differences. In our interactions with people who disagree with us, we must remember to not demonize them simply because they think differently than we do. In an acrimonious environment, this restraint and generosity are hard to practice. Ambrosino rightly reminds us, “Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.” It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanize.
Ambrosino’s article is not the kind of writing that will make most people happy, especially in the midst of such a heated debate. We like red meat. We like to read why we are right and virtuous and the other side is full of evil idiots. I saw both sides of the gay marriage debate use the recent Duck Dynasty kerfuffle as an opportunity to rally the troops and raise funds. I thankfully did see some willingness to understand the other’s position — i.e., exploring why some people would be hurt by Phil Robertson’s descriptions of homosexuality or why others would support Robertson’s call for a traditional understanding of marriage. But writings of that sort were not the norm. I saw far more works immediately digging trenches.
I’m not deluded to believe we won’t encounter thinking or people who are morally suspect. I merely hope we can follow Ambrosino’s example in not initially assuming someone has poor character because they disagree with us. He is right to call us to first give the other person the benefit of the doubt before labeling them a bigot or a degenerate. This kind of civil posture toward others requires character formation and practice. It also requires a community of people committed to practicing civility so that we might hold each other accountable.