Civility Project: Americans Have Always Been at Each Other’s Throats

In Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation, Joseph J. Ellis shows the political debates concerning the size and role of the government have been a part of our nation since the beginning. Originally, the founders did agree on some broad principles: namely the necessity to secede from Britain and a representative form of government. But once the Revolutionary War ended, the founders no longer had a common enemy and their differences with each other came to the fore.

Contemporary debates about the shape of government and even the meaning of the American Revolution are nothing new. These debates are in our national DNA and will likely never find resolution. That we have held together for so long — with one notable exception — is something of a miracle considering how uncivil we have been to each other. In retelling important events from the early years of the United States under the Constitution, Ellis shows the truth of the proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

In the chapter, “The Collaborators,” Ellis describes the political landscape at the end of George Washington’s presidency. The nation began to fray and political parties formed, despite previously being considered anathema. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two allies before and during the Revolution, found themselves as opponents in the contest to succeed Washington. While Adams won the election, Jefferson proved to be more percipient as he realized parties would dominate the future of American politics.

Consider this excerpt from “The Collaborators” and how much it sounds like it could describe American politics today. We don’t seem to have matured much in how we describe our opponents, nor are we more willing to view our own shortcomings. (I’ve added the emphasis.)

The ongoing debate between Federalists and Republicans had degenerated into ideological warfare. Each side sincerely saw the other as traitors to the core principles of the American Revolution. The political consensus that had held together during Washington’s first term, and had then begun to fragment into Federalist and Republican camps over the Whiskey Rebellion and Jay’s Treaty, broke down completely in 1797. Jefferson spoke for many of the participants caught up in this intensely partisan and nearly scatological political culture when he described it as a fundamental loss of trust between former friends. “Men who have been intimate all their lives,” he observed, “cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch hats.” He first used the phrase “a wall of separation,” which would later become famous as his description of the proper relation between church and state; here, however, describing the political and ideological division between Federalists and Republicans: “Politics and party hatreds destroy the happiness of every being here,” he reported to his daughter. “They seem, like salamanders, to consider fire as their element.”

Jefferson’s interpretation of the escalating party warfare was richly ironic, since he had contributed to the breakdown of personal trust and the complete disavowal of bipartisan cooperation by rejecting Adams’s offer to renew the old partnership. But Jefferson was fairly typical in this regard, lamenting the chasm between long-standing colleagues while building up the barricades from his side of the divide. Federalists and Republicans alike accused their opponents of narrow-minded partisanship, never conceding or apparently even realizing that their own behavior also fit the party label they affixed to their enemies.

The very idea of a legitimate opposition did not yet exist in the political culture of the 1790s, and the evolution of political parties was proceeding in an environment that continued to regard the word party as an epithet. In effect, the leadership of the revolutionary generation lacked a vocabulary adequate to describe the politics they were inventing. And the language they inherited framed the genuine political differences and divisions in terms that only exacerbated their nonnegotiable character.

Civility Project: Banning Words, Part 2

In Part 1, I argued the recent moves to ban words — either officially or symbolically — exposes the growing lack of a shared moral vocabulary in our society. The goals of those who seek to ban certain offensive words are often laudable, namely, the creation of a more respectful and civil public space. In Part 2, I argue seeking to ban words actually undermines these goals because it hinders the kind of character formation required to have such a civil public space.

Sheryl Sandberg wants us to ban the word “bossy” from our vocabularies, especially when applied to girls. The Ban Bossy campaign says when boys assert themselves they are praised for displaying leadership, but when girls exhibit the same behavior, they are called “bossy.” The Girl Scouts, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé, and Arne Duncan support the campaign to encourage young girls to become leaders. They hope the efforts of this campaign will end the double standard.

The use of the term “ban” is intentional. While the leaders of the campaign do not want an actual law banning the word bossy, they do want us to take this matter so seriously that we act as if laws prohibiting its use exist. The strong language is meant to stimulate us to consider our words. Just as the Ban Bossy campaign wants us to consider our use of the term bossy, I would like us to consider their use of the term ban.

Ban is a legal term. A ban places an external control preventing certain behavior. External controls are often necessary to protect the public from harm, but they are limited in their ability to foster a civil society. The Ban Bossy campaign hopes we would reflect on what words we say, to whom we say them, and what we communicate. An external control such as a ban — even an imaginary ban — will not necessarily lead to that reflection. Martin Luther King, Jr. points out the necessity and limits of external controls in his speech “Towards Freedom.”

It may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me; religion and education will have to do that. But if it keeps him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.

When my son began opening drawers and cabinets containing items that could harm him, my wife and I placed child safety locks all around the house. For a toddler who lacked impulse control, those external controls were necessary to keep him from hurting himself or destroying our hand mixer. The locks, however, only taught him he could not get into certain spaces in our home. He did not appreciate and the locks could not teach him the moral reasons for his banishment from the appliance cabinet. As he gained motor skills and figured his way around some of these safety precautions, my wife and I have had to change our parenting to helping our son develop internal controls. It became foolish to say to him, “You can’t go into that cabinet,” when he was clearly able to bypass the safety lock. We had to help him understand that he should not go into that cabinet because it was good to be safe and good to treat our hand mixer with care. Our parenting required us to teach him to internalize values like respecting other people’s property. (This is, to state the obvious, a work in progress.)

Let me be clear. In questioning the efficacy of campaigns to ban certain words or phrases, I am not saying we ought to use those terms. I support the elimination of harmful speech from our vocabularies. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted language has no place in public discourse. Our language should emerge from a commitment to respect our neighbor, especially when he says something with which I deeply disagree. Furthermore, the work the Ban Bossy campaign does to encourage girls in leadership is impressive and deserves support. My point is that we should not think the work needed to foster a civil society is accomplished because we have banned disrespectful language.

We like to apply legal terms on offensive speech because saying one is banned from using certain words appears to have more force than saying one ought not or should not use those words. In reality, the moral language of ought and should carries far more force because it requires us to reflect and choose how we treat others. When we consider what we should say, we have to think about what legitimate claims others have and how we go about respecting those claims.

To grow as moral beings, we need to develop internal controls, that is, we need character formation. Our language must shift from asking what can we do to what should we do?

Consider David Brent, the paper company manager played by Ricky Gervais on the original British version of the television show The Office. Brent can occasionally recognize sexist language. He knows the laws of England and the policies of his company do not allow him to say sexist things in the office, but he has no understanding why women would be offended by such talk. Thus he remains utterly sexist while attempting to adhere to the external rules his company and the state have put in place. Brent says all sorts of sexist comments and objectifies women regularly because the external controls have not produced the kind of reflection and change Brent needs to be a truly civil manager. He must develop internal controls, that is, to go from,”I can’t say sexist things,” to, “I shouldn’t say sexist things.”

With regard to offensive speech, banning words merely places an external control on us when we need to develop internal controls so that we might have a more civil and respectful society. Having a person say to himself, “I can’t call a girl ‘bossy,’ because it’s offensive and is a banned word,” ends the moral discussion. He does not have to move beyond the prohibition. So long as he doesn’t use the banned word, he has fulfilled what is required of him. “I shouldn’t call a girl ‘bossy,'” opens further moral reflection. Now he must to ask, “If I shouldn’t call a girl ‘bossy,’ what should I do instead?”

The task then becomes shaping people who respect one another and whose language emerges from that respect. We will start with the positive question, “What kind of society do we want?” instead of the negative question, “What sorts of actions do we not want in our society?” The former seeks a vision of the good life whereas the latter plays Whac-A-Mole with objectionable behaviors. Of course this means we must reflect publicly on what is the good life and how our neighbors fit into that good life. When our vision of the good life includes children growing into their full potential so that they might help shape a more just world, we will see that we should encourage girls to use their gifts of leadership to help others. Then, as our characters are properly formed, we will choose to not call girls “bossy” when they assert themselves. We will naturally celebrate young women growing into good leaders.

Civility Project: Banning Words, Part 1

Since 1976 Lake Superior State University has published an annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. The exercise offers people a chance to release their inner curmudgeon and ridicule neologisms or clichés that have saturated popular culture. Usually the suggested words are harmless, but their overuse has become annoying. Man cave. YOLO. Selfie. Twerking. Staycation. Viral. Occasionally the lists contain an offensive or politically-charged word (Mister Mom, mama grizzlies, Obamacare, fiscal cliff, waterboarding), though the gripe is usually not with what those words represent, but with how they have become a lazy shorthand enabling our avoidance of real debate on serious subjects.

The editors of the annual list claim no real authority to prevent people from using those words. While the List of Words to be Banished is a silly and fun distraction, in reality it is not so distant from where our society has moved. People have attempted to ban through legislation and lawsuits the use of certain words. Many of the words in question are racist, homophobic, or otherwise degrading. Those seeking to legally prohibit certain words intend to protect a level of civility in public discourse. Not surprisingly, others have pushed back against these attempts to restrain language.

Arguments against these prohibitions commonly take one of two forms. First, those against banning words tell people who are offended to toughen (or lighten) up. This is a largely unhelpful move because often I do not have the negative history with the phrase that my neighbor does and thus I do not fully understand why he would find such a phrase offensive. The call to toughen up often shows a lack of empathy. The second argument wants to protect the freedom of speech and worries about prior restraint and the establishment of an Orwellian Thought Police that dictates what we can and cannot think. This second criticism has more going for it than the first, but both objections do not address the underlying issues. The attempts to ban certain words highlight the growing lack of a common moral vocabulary in our society and poor character formation. I’ll address the lack of a shared moral language in this post and the poor character formation in the next.

Speech can be extremely dangerous. We have numerous historical accounts of how derogatory language dehumanized people and such language helped create environments where violence against marginalized groups was legitimized. I recently heard a speaker cite two examples to show this phenomenon: the Nazis in Germany didn’t see themselves as killing Jewish people, they were eradicating “rats”; and the Hutus didn’t attack their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, they “crushed the cockroaches.” Violence against these minority groups became easier to justify because the descriptions used by the dominant cultures made the victims seem less than human. Those seeking to ban certain words often have valid arguments for why these words are unwelcome. The trouble is that because we no longer have a common moral vocabulary, we have few options to help us engage these controversies.

Postmodernism broke down the idea that we have a single, dominant narrative driving our ethics. In many ways, the deconstruction thankfully allowed those on the margins a voice. We were to now consider other points of view beyond the most powerful. Postmodernism was also supposed to give us a marketplace of narratives competing with each other, but that marketplace never really materialized. Instead narratives sit in their silos not knowing how to interact with each other. In the United States we do not have robust discussions of how we ought to live. We find ourselves at a place where each person is to decide what is right for herself, but her decisions are to not have any bearing on what is right for her neighbor.

The trouble with the siloed reality is we have to live with each other. We have to make choices that will affect other people in our community. We need some way to interact. Into the vacuum of no common moral language we have placed the last vestige of shared values: the law. Since we cannot appeal to a common moral basis when conflicts arise, we have to appeal to what is legal. The moral question of whether we should do something has been replaced with the legal question of whether we can do something. We do not ask, “Is it good for me to do this?” We merely ask, “Am I allowed to do this?”

When this applies to offensive words we can no longer say to another, “You shouldn’t say that,” because we lack a shared sense of what is good for a person to do. We may say it is wrong to use offensive words, but we hold little hope that our moral reasoning will convince anyone else. In order to then protect the public square from damaging speech we have to resort to making the use of such speech illegal.

One may argue most of those calling for the banishment of certain words don’t actually write laws in which people who use the offensive phrases would be punished by the government. They use the term “ban” symbolically to express the severity of these phrases. The campaigns to ban harmful words want us to treat the words as if it is illegal to say them. Yet, the language of banning reveals the growing lack of a shared moral vocabulary. We do not appeal to what is civil or good. We may appeal to what is right, but even the definition of right has thinned out to mean what is legally right, that is, what is allowed. Is it because we know we cannot assume others share similar definitions of civil and good?

I do not wish to establish a new universal moral language as I do not think one exists that all will accept. Attempting to create one would be a foolhardy feat and would run two risks. First, since most people would not willingly give up their own moral philosophy and adopt another just for the sake of having a common morality, we would run the risk of coercion or worse, oppression, in which I force you to adhere to my moral language. Second, if we commit to not using coercion, we would run the risk of creating a moral Esperanto. It would have high ideals, but in reality, very few people would use it. You would probably see advertisements for it on college bulletin boards and never hear of it otherwise.

I hope instead for that marketplace of competing visions of the good to be a reality. This would be a space where we share our traditions with each other, learn from different views, praise what is good and critique what is bad in each view, and even try to convince others to adopt our moral visions. Such a marketplace demands serious personal reflection and character development, something the calls for the banning of words cannot produce. We have to reflect on what we believe is the good life and figure out how to explain that vision to others. I’ll explore these matters in part two.

Civility Project: Political Polarization Trends in the U.S.

Pew Research released, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” a report detailing the widening gulf between American citizens along political lines over the last twenty years. More people now report being more consistently conservative and liberal than previously, leading to stretching the social fabric of the nation.

The report’s overview offers many things to consider from a civility perspective. First, let us dispense with a myth that being more consistently conservative or liberal makes people inherently less civil. Similarly we should not follow the temptation to think being moderate or centrist is somehow more civil. (Also, moderate or centrist is extremely difficult to define. Is someone a moderate because she takes a centrist position on most issues or because she holds a generally equal amount of conservative and liberal views on different matters?) Rather, the challenge for all of us—liberals, moderates, and conservatives—is how do we remain open to engaging in an appreciative manner views that are different than our own? How willing are we to be in community with people who disagree with us? How committed are we to not dehumanize others for holding views we find wrong? To this end, Pew’s report details troubling trends.

As Americans have grown more liberal and conservative, so has their distrust and even antipathy for the other side. “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.'” Clearly ideas and policies matter. One party may very well have plans that if put in place would hurt the nation. What concerns me is that this growing antipathy breaks the social fabric necessary for a pluralistic democracy. To credibly engage each other in the public square requires we give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor, to trust he operates out of good intentions. I believe we must be able to say to one another, “Even though I may think your positions are misguided and possibly dangerous, I trust that you want the best for the nation.” Otherwise we have a rapidly decreasing amount of room to find mutually beneficial solutions.

This antipathy has serious consequences for our communities. Pew reports as people move more into “ideological silos,” they grow less likely to have friends who do not share their political views. More troubling, people express less desire to even live near those with a different political outlook. We’re becoming a nation that wants to be neighbors only with people who think like we do. Forget the redistricting fights that happen every decade—if we continue on this trend, we’ll gerrymander ourselves. This area of the report seems to be the most difficult to parse since the researchers found plenty of correlative but non-political data shaping the responses of how people choose where to live. For example, liberals voiced a preference for urban living where they could walk to the grocer, conservatives liked a rural environment with more space, and just about nobody loved the suburbs. One wonders how this data is any different than the realities that have shaped our communities historically. I live in the Bay Area of California, where many liberals flocked and many conservatives avoided for decades. Is the data new because what we’ve long suspected has now been shown with evidence? Or is this data new because more people are now saying explicitly, “it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views”?

Some might argue that for the sake of civility and the social fabric it would be better for consistent conservatives and liberals to moderate their political views, but I don’t think that’s a likely possibility. Asking people to give up, diminish, or silence core convictions isn’t a very civil request. Nor would a mass moderation movement necessarily change these disheartening trends. One could just as easily imagine moderates preferring only to live near other moderates and desiring to ghettoize the extreme left and right.

A possible solution I see would be a lot more messy and uncomfortable than our current situation. Silos and ghettos are a lot easier to maintain than choosing to live together. I believe we begin recapturing a positive view of our neighbors with whom we differ politically by committing to seeing them as our neighbors first before seeing them as a political adversaries. It is civil to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are operating out of good intentions. Finding ways to extend and ask for help from one another creates a neighborly environment. It becomes a lot more difficult to dehumanize someone when you help them change a tire or when they help you bring the groceries inside. That is, we remind ourselves that our neighbors have lives and concerns like us and they cannot be reduced to how far they lean left or right.

We not only try to see our neighbors for who they really are, we also take a hard look at ourselves. We ask if we are becoming more siloed, and if we are, we take steps to change course. That means fostering a willingness to make ourselves more uncomfortable by not receiving our political news only from a few sources that merely affirm our positions. We should engage news and thoughtful opinions from different sources, not to knock down or disprove those sources, but to really learn how our neighbors think. I also believe we have to take an appreciative approach, looking for what is good in our neighbor’s opinion, and seeking areas of agreement first, before we state our disagreement with him.

These trends pose special problems for the Church and they require us to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we shaped more by these trends in our society or by the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we view our neighbors who hold political positions that are different than ours—do we see them as children of God, or would we rather avoid them? Do we prefer to live only near those who hold similar political views as we do or are we willing to love our neighbors no matter how they vote?

Civility Project: “I Never Argue,” or What Flannery O’Connor’s “The Barber” Can Teach the Internet

Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published short story, “The Barber” offers us much wisdom in our age of internet arguments. O’Connor tells the story of Rayber, a liberal college professor in a Southern town arguing about an upcoming election with a barber who holds segregationist views. Over the course of the story Rayber fumes, obsesses with proving the rude barber wrong, seeks solace from like-minded colleagues, and ultimately punches the barber when his arguments prove ineffective. The story calls out the futility of arguing with people who have no desire to change their minds. It also reminds us that others may not find our reasoning as persuasive as we do.

The comment sections beneath news stories and on Reddit, tweets, and the feeds on Facebook brim with arguments like those found in “The Barber.” Some people try to remain calm like Rayber, believing that sound reasoning will always win the day and that everyone is able to be convinced if they simply heard the best argument. Others take the barber’s tack, drawing quick conclusions about their opponents and throwing around dismissive insults. In many ways Rayber and the barber are more similar than they would like to admit. Both carry the conviction they are right and have closed their minds to other views. Both want the last word.

In my favorite part of the story, Rayber reads a paper to Jacobs, his colleague who teaches philosophy and holds similar views about democracy and race. Jacobs listens to the paper, which Rayber believes will prove his point against the barber.

“Well,” Jacobs said, “so what? What do you call yourself doing?” He had been jotting figures down on a record sheet all the time Rayber was reading.

Rayber wondered if he was busy. “Defending myself against barbers,” he said. “You ever tried to argue with a barber?”

“I never argue,” Jacobs said.

“That’s because you don’t know this kind of ignorance,” Rayber explained. “You’ve never experienced it.”

Jacobs snorted. “Oh, yes, I have,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I never argue.”

“But you know you’re right,” Rayber persisted.

“I never argue.”

Perhaps before we comment on a story or post an opinion we should ask ourselves Jacobs’s questions: “Well…so what? What do you call yourself doing?” Are we going into the discussion to learn more about the other person’s position? Are we willing to change our views? Do we want to add to the discussion with the hope that the community’s knowledge and wisdom increases as we consider different perspectives? Or do we want to prove someone else wrong and show them just how smart we are? Do we enter these discussions so that we might win an argument?

My point is not to say that all debate is futile—I do not think that is the message of, “The Barber.” Otherwise, we should simply retreat to our corners and interact only with people who already agree with us. Nor do I believe there are not some views that should be rebuffed outright. Rather, I believe most of the time we should engage different points of view when we are open to learn and change. I hope we can better discern when others are willing to do the same. That does not mean we give up core convictions, but that we allow our perspectives to broaden. We can then shape better opinions, meaning we are more informed when we accept or reject the other person’s reasoning.

In what has become an annual ritual, I have fasted from Facebook during Lent. I noticed again more peace in my life as I did not engage in so many arguments. Getting some distance from Facebook allowed me to better appreciate the story of “The Barber.” Jacobs’s words to Rayber stung. I’m guilty of wanting the last word and desiring to win rather than to learn. I need to hear Jacobs’s questions as well as remember his motto, “I never argue.”

If O’Connor’s story doesn’t make the point succinctly enough, I present this xkcd comic from Randall Munroe, who shows the reality of many internet arguments: