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Starting Points

(Note:  During these contentious political and social times—times in which each day brings a new story about the values and costs of civility and free speech—I am tempted to build my arguments around contemporary events.  I want to resist that temptation, at least in this first essay, in order to lay some groundwork for the next two essays.)


Confusion, delusion, and bias are parts of the human condition.  They make actual disagreement an achievement.  Not agreement:  that, often, is too much to ask (and history suggests that attempts to either achieve or enforce agreement end in suffering).  Working toward clear, honest, and substantive disagreement is hard.  It is, I think, also necessary in societies that would endure over time and at least attempt to be just.  Civility and freedom of expression help make such disagreement possible.

This is one of the reasons that the syllabus of every class I teach at Columbia Theological Seminary includes a page of “Hints, Tips, and Rules for a Good Ethics Class.”  Before it wanders into details having to do with grammar, plagiarism, inclusive language, etc., that page begins like this:

Because seminary classes regularly deal with matters that are both personal and potentially divisive, we all need to keep several points in mind as we communicate with each other in this class.  Among these are:

1.  We are unified in Christ, not in opinion.  There is no special reason to think that we all must agree on an issue in order to be part of Christ’s church.  Christians have been disagreeing with each other at least since Peter and Paul, and there is no reason to think that will change this side of eternity.  In fact, as a general rule of thumb we ought to be suspicious about any issue about which we all agree.  When all heads nod in the same way, we are either exerting illegitimate control over other persons’ heads or we have stopped using our own.

2.  Disagreement can be many things:  intellectual, heated, productive, mild, etc.  Our burden is to keep it from being destructive or splintering.  Toward that end, there are three rules for disagreement within this class:

     a.  Always remember that the person with whom you disagree is, like you, a finite creature created in the image of God who is no more or less likely to sin than you and no more or less capable of being redeemed than you.  Demonizing others based on their positions is disrespectful to persons, contrary to the faith, and in poor taste.

     b.  You should be able to state your opponent’s position so clearly and fairly that your opponent would say, “Yes, that is what I mean.”  Only then can you rightly give a critique of that position.

     c.  You have the responsibility of following your thought through to its logical conclusions.  If you don’t like those conclusions, back up, figure out where you went wrong, and then either clarify or qualify your thought accordingly.

Those rules help reinforce civility in my class.  It doesn’t take long, though, for my students—who are being encouraged to ask questions about the moral and theological bases for rules, among other things—to ask about why these should be the rules.  And, as criticisms of civility grow increasingly common (based, as they are, on either concerns about efficacy during turbulent times or the way some arguments for civility reinforce unjust power dynamics and oppressive structures in society), they ask whether such rules are actually good.  

So, in almost every class I teach, I also include an early lecture on why to listen to people with whom we disagree.  Part of that lecture includes attention to John Stewart Mill’s reasons for doing so in his little classic, On Liberty, which I sometimes summarize as:  1) You could be wrong; 2) Even if you are (mostly) right, engagement with someone that thinks differently from you will help you shape your own arguments; and, 3) If you don’t listen to people who disagree with you, you won’t be able to distinguish the basis for your arguments from unexamined prejudice.  Those are good, classic, liberal arguments for engaging others and although they don’t line out practices of civility they at least hint at its importance.  I will return to them momentarily.

Since I teach at a seminary (and since I am a Christian of the Reformed variety), I also include in that lecture a more theological argument for listening to those with whom we disagree.  I call the basis for this argument “Balaam’s Law,” based on the story of Balaam in Numbers 22.  In that passage, the prophet-for-hire Balaam is called by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites as they pass by Moab during their trip from Egypt to the promised land.  As Balaam rides his donkey toward the appropriate cursing spot, God’s anger is kindled at Balaam, and God sends an armed angel to stand in the road and prevent Balaam from continuing.  Though Balaam doesn’t see the angel, Balaam’s donkey does; understandably, the donkey turns aside and carries Balaam into a field—an action for which Balaam beats the donkey and turns it back to the road.  Twice more, the pattern repeats:  armed angel visible only to frightened donkey, Balaam waylaid and angry, donkey beaten.  “Then,” the text reads, “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? . . . Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all of your life to this day?  Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?’” at which point, God open’s Balaam’s eyes to see the angel, rebukes Balaam for his behavior toward his donkey and his plan for the Israelites, and Balaam repents before blessing the Israelites rather than cursing them.

Though the story is richer than either my brief summary here or my use of it to establish Balaam’s Law reveals, it does get me to this law:  If God can speak through an ass, then surely God can speak through someone with whom you disagree.  This is my (rather cruder and titter/twitter-invoking) version of Karl Barth’s famous claim from Church Dogmatics I.1:  “God may speak through Russian communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog.”  The fundamental idea, obviously, is that Christian faith begins in a grace-filled revelation that is always disruptive and never determined by the prior holiness or the moral rectitude of either the speaker or the recipient of a revelatory word.  To the extent that living out a Christian faith is a continual project of discerning the word and work of God and responding appropriately, it is therefore hard for me to imagine any context in which Christians should refuse to listen to another person.  Of course, listening to another person is not the same thing as accepting what that other person has to say: discerning how one who is Wholly Other may be speaking also means rejecting words that are antithetical to the witness of the gospel.  And since the Christian life is a kind of pilgrimage, the practices of listening and discerning are wrapped in processes of developing particular virtues and resisting the temptations of particular vices.

There are tensions between the Millian approach to the obligations of public discourse for democratic citizenship and the “Balaamian” approach to the obligations of revelatory discernment for faithful life, and I may return to those in a future essay (especially if Tony quite properly challenges me on them).  But before addressing those tensions, it is worth noting places of overlap between the two approaches because those places point toward answers to several of the deeper questions about the possibilities and limits to civility and free speech that animate this forum.  Such points of overlap include: 

  • Treating civility and freedom of speech as necessary but instrumental goods.  The goals of civility and free expression are not being civil or expressing freedom.  Instead, they are part of a collection of strategic goods to be inculcated in the pursuit of some greater good.  That good in democratic polities is the creation of a society in which all persons can participate in the governing structures that allow for a robust and resilient state.  That good in the Christian faith is the kingdom of God that has been inaugurated but not yet consummated.  In either instance, the wager implied in treating civility and freedom of speech as necessary but instrumental goods is that they are more likely to lead to these greater goods than are any alternatives.

  • Maintaining epistemic and rhetorical humility.  Neither democratic discourse nor Christian vision can be sustained where ideological fervor or fundamentalist certitude trump commitments to listen to and speak with those different from oneself.  Whether humility takes the form of a commitment to the type of Emersonian experimentalism that multiplies perspectives in order to figure out which ones can advance a society or the recognition that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways (Isaiah 55), such a posture favors both critical and charitable engagement with others.  Civility and freedom of speech are manifestations of this posture in that they constrain one’s own inclinations to dominate conversations and they support the rights of others to speak.    

  • Committing oneself to relationship.  Democratic discourse and Christian vision are both undergirded by the convictions that we can be stronger together than we can be when separated and that unity is not the same as unanimity.  Whether this commitment manifests in a motto like e pluribus unum or a verse like “different gifts but the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12), this value not only honors the actual diversity of persons but shapes a teleological vision of reconciliation.  Maintaining civility and supporting freedom of speech become ways that persons express their hope that we need not leave others behind (let alone knock others down) in order to move closer to the beloved community of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke.               

There are other points of overlap; I raise these three because each of them also hints at where civility and free speech may find their limits in either regulation or prohibition. 

Treating civility and freedom of speech as necessary but instrumental goods recognizes that, historically, one of the dominant alternatives to speech in the projects of pursuing a summum bonum is violence.  The temptations toward violence are endemic to human existence and have been expressed in projects having to do with either creating a better state (e.g., the French Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, Mao’s cultural revolution) or bringing about the Kingdom of God.  Both moral vision and long experience, though, show that using violence to bring about such ends is neither good nor, in the long run, effective.  Where speech is used to incite, encourage, or valorize violence, it can be restricted or prohibited. 

I would hasten to note that I am aware that many people—especially those in minoritized or oppressed communities—experience some speech acts as forms of violence.  While I am sympathetic to the experiences of those against whom harsh speech has been directed and I try to be attentive to the way coarse and antagonistic speech may shape social attitudes that make violence more likely, I worry that equating speech acts with violence not only fails to distinguish between offense and harm but undermines the very notions of agency that makes it possible for us to recognize responsibility and hold people accountable for their actions.  Words do hurt but not in the same way that sticks and stones do and, for me, that difference is qualitative. 

Maintaining epistemic and rhetorical humility recognizes that language is contextual, that contexts change, that responding to such changes requires a kind of social resilience, and that pluralizing perspectives is a precondition for such resilience.  The temptation to treat one’s own opinion or one’s own place in time as the most important point in history (and, therein, to treat one’s own concerns or the current moment as carrying a level of urgency based on the premise that if we do not get things right now, all is lost) has not only led to violence but tended to produce results antithetical to the goals of desperate projects.  Again:  moral vision and long experience show that those who have treated their own perspective or any particular moment in time as singularly and overwhelmingly important have lost both their moorings in history and their imaginations for the future—and then haven’t been able to move into the moments that come next.  Where speech is used to end conversations, to silence critics, to shout down unpopular positions, to harm through deception, or to reject the diversity of voices, it can be restricted or prohibited.

I would hasten to note that I recognize that appeals to humility can be weaponized against those who face structural injustice:  when those on the top tell those on the bottom to be humble, they regularly mean for them to stay in their places at the bottom.  Contemporary disquiet and disgust with the virtue of civility by many of those on the political left are driven by such an awareness.  Any appeal to civility that is inattentive to the reality of the structures and flows of power in social systems should be called to account for such inattentiveness and made aware of the history of deleterious consequences that follow from such naivete.  It seems to me, though, that rejecting civility in such contexts not only misunderstands the strategic/instrumental value of civility but cedes moral high ground (high ground being in short supply for those on the bottom).  Regardless of who does it, weaponizing speech by using it to deceive, silence, or end conversations gives ammunition to the prejudices of the opposition and, when it is done by the oppressed, manifests as a project of tearing down the master’s house with the master’s tools—which, as Audre Lorde reminded us, is a doomed project.                     

Committing oneself to relationship recognizes that the kinds of othering that lead to people being treated as less than or other than human begin by separating “us” from “them” and building barriers between “us” and “them.”  The temptations to divide, to cordon off, and to otherwise dream up categorical differences between people have funded chattel slavery and genocide, not to mention racism, sexism, classism, and the other -isms that plague societies.  Where they have flourished, so have many of the deepest injustices and most horrific events of human history.  Where speech is used to categorize and then divide people, to generalize and then demean people, to reject and then dehumanize people, it can be restricted and prohibited.

I would hasten to note that this is, perhaps, the most complicated set of restrictions or prohibitions to negotiate, if only because such restrictions and prohibitions struggle to address matters of tone, nuance, intent, and context.  What is the difference between a tasteless joke and verbal cruelty (one thinks of the difference between mocking the powerful and mocking those who cannot defend themselves)?  Between the same word used in either a derogatory or empowering way (one thinks of the way the term “queer” with reference to LGBTQ+ persons has changed)?  Between the way a word is seemingly innocuous when used by one group and never innocuous when used by another?  By way of starting to answer such questions, I will note only that I am resistant to granting magical powers to language:  words, themselves, do not do things.  Addressing such questions means taking up the complex projects of making judgements about human intentions, actions, and consequences.  Making judgments about words, themselves, is tantamount to an attempt to escape those projects.   

In the six paragraphs immediately preceding this one, I have tried to at least begin to do two things:  1) to offer a defense of the way the proper limits to free speech are built into the very purposes of speech in democratic discourse and Christian vision; and, 2) to attend to the complexities of those limits.  I suspect that Tony’s responses to these paragraphs will mandate that I circle back around to them.

For the moment, though, I want to recognize that the vision of civility and free speech I am offering here comes from the perspective of someone whose social location and status (white, male, upper-middle class, educated, able, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian) is as likely to inoculate me from the most deleterious consequences of that vision as many of the things that I might actually say, write, or think.  While nobody can negotiate the thickets of language and exit unscathed—especially in open and democratic systems—I am simply more likely to emerge with scratches than scars than are many people.  Recognizing this, I want to make two final claims, one that is weakly valorous and another that is harder.

The weakly valorous claim is this:  that the same virtues and practices that sustain the visions of democratic engagement and Christian living I am espousing here mandate that those like me whose positions provide access to power and resources have an obligation to give special and specific attention to the way language (and especially our own speech) harms others and then to oppose such use of language and mitigate its consequences as we are able through our own use of words.  If being civil means being polite, then we may be called to be uncivil.  If, however, being civil means participating in the creation and expansion of a society that is honest, caring, open, and respectful for all persons (that is, if being civil means working to construct a just civitas), then the pursuit of civility is among the most important of things that we do.

The harder claim is this:  In the Augustinian vision I am promoting here—one in which the “city of God” and the “city of man” are inextricably blurred—many of the concerns I have tried to name above are not problems to be resolved so much as they are conditions to be borne.  Perhaps bearing them can mean working to manage, minimize, or ameliorate them; it will not mean attempting to end them because such attempts will make things worse.  In this, concerns about civility and free speech are like much of the rest of life:  matters to be endured more than problems to be solved.  So far as I can see, the virtues that inhere in civility and freedom of expression are the very virtues that can help us endure those concerns because they help us bear each other.

My classroom is not wholly like wider society.  All the students are graduate students, all share at least some overlap in faith and worldview, and, as professor, I wield power both in soft forms (I can remind students about language use during class discussions) and harder ones (I grade their work).  Neither my pedagogical methods, my “hints, tips, and rules,” nor my lectures may be applicable in many other social settings.  They are, though, I hope, means for helping students develop virtues associated with critical and charitable engagement—including those associated with civility and the promotion of free speech.  If they can help produce better citizens and Christians, then perhaps they (or their analogues) are worth promoting more broadly?


Next up:  Responses to Tony and explorations about the implications of these foundations for matters having to do with weaponized free speech, the contemporary political scene, and the advent of social media.  

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Reader Comments (1)

"Words themselves do not do things." Words shape our thoughts, which would not be possible without words. Yes, certain individuals make choices to use certain words as propaganda, but the history of the Third Reich suggests the constant use of words to dehumanise certain groups leads many people to think that they are, in fact, not human. This alteration of their thought by means of words explains why so many - although certainly not all - Germans said and did nothing to object when those groups were rounded up to be eradicated. Nazi propaganda was used as the first weapon against the groups they targeted, and although there was also a great deal of visual propaganda, words formed the bedrock of much of that propaganda.

This is true today. I am an autistic person. We are still referred to in ways which suggest we are less than human. And when parents kill their autistic children, judges accept it was understandable, because of the "burden" we represent. Few people realise many of our most extreme behavious are responses to the pain we feel at living in a world that is often hostile to us.

Until a few years ago, I lived in Massachusetts, home to the Judge Rotenberg Center, where one young man was shocked into catatonia for the offense of refusing to remove his coat. Words were used to frame the arguments which persuaded the courts, and the public, to accept that this was "necessary". As a writer, I consider free speech extremely important, but I also understand how easily words can be used as a weapon to alter perception as a prelude to violence. Even when they do not directly incite violence, those such words are directed against have reason to fear them.

December 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRay Beere Johnson II

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