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Civility and the Bodies Politic

In my opening essay for “Respectful Conversations,” I claimed that genuine disagreement isn’t a condition of human existence; it’s an achievement of human charity.  Okay, I didn’t quite say that (at least in those words).  My suggestion was premised on the idea that much of what passes for disagreement these days—at least in the public sphere—is actually people talking (or yelling) past one another or spouting catch-phrases and slogans meant to substitute for thought.  It was also premised on the idea that we human beings—especially those of us who are both citizens of a democratic society and children of God—actually have the capacity to do the hard work of learning to disagree and to disagree better (or do so more lovingly, as Tony would argue).  Figuring out another person’s arguments (not to mention one’s own arguments) and discovering points of connection and divergence takes time, energy, and practice, not to mention honesty, humility, and charity.  The philosopher Donald Davidson has argued that all disagreements are premised on an underlying set of agreements about, e.g., what words mean, how ideas work, what types of authorities have persuasive power, etc.  Though the philosophical infrastructure supporting Davidson’s argument is rather involved and not wholly compelling to everyone (you can find it here if you want some seriously deep reading), his basic point is, I think, true.  Trusting that basic point helps sustain continued engagement on the way to shaping disagreements.  Said differently, good and important disagreements only exist in contexts where the parties involved have a relationship, value that relationship, and are willing to stay in that relationship.  And civility greases those wheels. 

Hopefully, this, my third essay in this series, exemplifies the claim about disagreement being an achievement.  Two essays in and I think Tony and I are starting to figure out where our disagreements are.  And it’s not like we’ve been dancing around each other like boxers in a ring, trying to suss out each other’s weaknesses before attacking.  Instead, we’ve been trying to talk to each other and to our wider audiences in ways that clarified our positions as we were coming to understand and display them and to understand each other’s positions as we gained better senses of where the other was coming from.  So now, in this third essay, I think I’m ready to argue with Tony and I’m grateful to Tony for his own hard work in making the arguments possible.  Were our worlds not so bounded by our respective obligations to get other things done and the structure of “Respectful Conversations,” I suspect that these third essays would make excellent starting points rather than conclusions.

I.  A Story of Incivility


I started my seminary education in 1990.  When I arrived, I was moderately conservative both theologically and politically.  Not fundamentalist theologically or John Birch-y politically, mind you:  just somewhat right of center.  When I finished my Master of Divinity degree three years later, I was moderately liberal both theologically and politically.  Again:  not rabidly so; just somewhat left of center (to the degree that such spectrums make sense).  I still believe in the power of free markets to solve economic problems—though now I also recognize the need for regulations and government resources to deal with the uneven distribution of the negative effects of free market solutions.  I still believe in limited government—though I don’t think that “limited government” and “small government” are the same things and think those who spend their energies attempting to shrink government have a dangerously anarchic sensibility.  I still believe in personal responsibility—though I see how unjust social structures can inhibit the development of personal responsibility and access to power can be used to escape personal responsibility.  I still believe in a strong defense—though perhaps we might only spend as much as the next five countries combined?  And I still don’t like paying taxes—though I’m learning to see how many ways those taxes make my comfort possible and other peoples’ lives more possible.  (Parenthetically, I think that LGBTQ+ persons are every bit as human as me, that evolution and climate change are real, that news doesn’t become fake just because I disagree with it, that refugees should be treated compassionately, that women and men should be treated equally, that racism is a real and structural problem, that those who are most affected by decisions should have a voice in making them, and that the rapture is a 19th century invention based on horrible biblical interpretation—but I also think that thoughtful conservatives should be able to agree with me on those things without surrendering their conservative convictions.) 

Upon graduation from seminary, various family members and friends found my change confusing, if not alarming, and several of them asked what led to my changes.  That question was one I asked myself.  Upon reflection, I came to realize that my answer to that question had to do with both matters of civility and of scholarly development—and the former matters were probably a more fundamental driver of the change than the latter ones. 

I went to seminary at a time when the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (of which I am both a member and a minister) was entering a series of protracted debates and increasingly acrimonious divisions.  The issues at hand were those that most of the mainline denominations were/are dealing with:  homosexuality, scriptural interpretation, and liberation theologies, to name three major ones.  Early in my seminary life, when I argued with classmates about such things, I argued from the conservative side and when I looked for comrades who would stand with me, I looked to fellow conservatives. 

But here was the thing:  the more I talked with my fellow conservatives, the more I came to see them as . . . well, . . . as real (insert appropriate vulgar epithet here).  In private, they spoke belittlingly of many of our fellow students and condemningly of some of our more vulnerable classmates.  In public, they seemed to revel in proving others wrong.  In worship, their prayers sounded pharisaical.  And they weren’t above being sneaky or disingenuous in order to get their way on things.  And bear in mind:  the seminary I attended was, politically and theologically, fairly evenly divided among the student body.  And though the faculty probably leaned to the left collectively, the administration seemed to lean to the right.  So it wasn’t like my fellow conservatives and I were a small, embattled minority fighting to survive or a large majority thinking we could establish hegemonic control over things.  It’s just how we—or, increasingly, they—engaged the world.  Cruelty may not have been at the center of that conservative world but it rarely seemed wholly absent.  The more I was around my conservative colleagues, the less I wanted to be like them.  And the less I wanted to be like them, the more open I was to hearing other perspectives.  As I became better able to hear those perspectives, I was increasingly changed by them.

I am not saying that my story is the case everywhere.  Nor am I saying that liberals couldn’t be (repeat above vulgar epithet) themselves.  Nor even that the story can’t go the other way:  there is an entire genre of “I used to be liberal and then conservatives opened my eyes to the way things really are” literature out there, especially among the more libertarian versions of political conservativism.  I only am telling my personal story and, as someone once noted, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

I am, instead, telling this story in order to make two quick points and introduce one longer argument.  The first quick point is that patterns of civility and incivility—how we treat each other in public settings—have consequences and sometimes those consequences register in unexpected ways.  Conservative incivility motivated my move toward liberal perspectives.  The second quick point is that academic institutions have complex and fluid ecologies in which there are many forces at work.  In spite of tendencies to see academic institutions as stolid and singular, there are always lots of things happening and movement in many directions.

The longer argument has to do with Tony’s concerns about conservatives on campuses. 

II.  Higher Education as Crucible 


As a card-carrying member of the liberal academy, I value, above almost all other things, the pursuit of truth and the passing along of wisdom.  When I teach, I do not care whether my students agree with me.  Not only do I try to reserve revealing my perspectives until asked (preferably at the end of a discussion), but I’m an ethicist:  I argue for a living and like doing so.  I do care—a great deal—that my students come to understand things in greater complexity and with an ear to a wider range of perspectives.  I ask them to question old verities.  To argue from perspectives they do not hold.  To name strengths and weaknesses in their own arguments.  To recognize the incompleteness of their own understandings and identities.  To attend to the complex movements and poolings of various forms of power and the way power both distorts and makes advancement possible.  To see doubt as a spiritual discipline.  To recognize that truth isn’t determined by vote.  My classrooms are not meant to be comfortable spaces and certainly not safe spaces.

Perhaps some conservatives in my classroom find its environment troubling.  Perhaps they see the multiplication of perspectives as an endorsement of cosmopolitanism, the valuing of doubt as an expression of moral relativism, the attention to power as a way of undermining the benefits of traditions, and the valuing of the voices of women or persons in marginalized communities as a sign that I don’t value their voices.  If so, I may not be doing a good enough job of explaining myself, they may not yet be ready for my classes, or we may simply be failing to achieve disagreement.  What is not the case, however, is that they are being singled out or persecuted. 

Likewise, some liberals may find the environment in my classroom troubling.  In my experience, however, when they find it troubling, they tend to do so without recourse to a narrative about how they are being persecuted for the positions they hold.  And since, year after year, they tend to watch either their white, male classmates or their more conservative classmates (or those who are both) get good-paying positions first—sometimes regardless of academic ability or spiritual maturity—those more liberal students almost certainly have a pretty good point when they distinguish between individual experiences of disempowerment and institutional structures that disempower.  In a world where you can find the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, neoliberal economists at the University of Chicago, and Koch brothers money shaping hiring practices at George Mason (not to mention government-accredited Bible Institutes, evangelical schools where students have to sign morality pledges, development offices across the country seeking big money from very wealthy—and often quite conservative—donors, and schools like Hillsdale College actively pushing a conservative agenda), I find it difficult to buy into the “conservatives are persecuted in the academy” argument without adding a healthy dose of “conservatives push a narrative of persecution for  their own purposes” skepticism to the mix.  There may be a correlation between having a conservative worldview and having that worldview criticized on campus but correlation and causation aren’t the same:  when they are functioning correctly, campuses are places where everyone’s worldviews get criticized.                     

None of this is to say that “loudmouth liberals and conservatives” are not a problem in the academy nor to disagree with the idea that everyone has the obligation to love the neighbors they have as well as the colleagues they like.  The rules of civility still apply.  I suspect that while Tony and I may disagree about the status of conservative thinkers on campuses, the ethos in any of the classes we might teach probably would be quite similar.

Instead, it is to say the only site I can think of where there is a greater likelihood of individual transformation, where one must negotiate more contending forces pushing against you, and where there is closer attention to the potential for growth and the reshaping of relationships than the academy is the birth canal.  Those of us who teach at institutions of higher education think this is a good thing:  it shapes personal character, it builds social resilience, and it sustains a thoughtful citizenry.  Those of us who teach in institutions of higher theological education think this is a faithful thing:  it reinforces the spiritual practices through which out students work out their own salvation with fear and trembling as God works in them (Philippians 2:12).   All the more reason to emphasize both civility and free speech.  The academy is not, though, a place where snowflakes thrive.  Each year during commencement exercises, the most disparaging thing my colleagues and I can say about a new graduate is that, “S/he went through unscathed.”

III.  Tentative Reflections on the Fourth Estate


Moving from reflecting on civility in the academy to civility in the fourth estate is a risky thing for me to do here.  Aside from a year-and-a-half spent writing weekly editorials for an Atlanta newspaper, I have no real experience in journalism—and it wasn’t that good a newspaper.  Nor do I have Tony’s training for understanding the larger processes and practices of good reporting.  So I’m not only on relatively unfamiliar turf here; I’m probably so uninformed about these matters that I don’t even understand how much I don’t know.  Still, where angels fear to tread . . .  

In his second post, Tony writes, “Journalism should flip the journalistic triad and start with genuine sympathy and empathy, move to objectivity, and then if called for, add criticism.”  I begin with a question:  why treat empathy, objectivity, and criticism sequentially (and the third, potentially, optionally)?  Bypassing the conceptual cul-de-sac of questions about the possibility of objectivity, it seems to me that the first task of journalists is to inform.  This task is so vital in democracies that the nation’s founders enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment right after the freedoms of religion and speech.  That tasks mandates accuracy.  And giving accurate accounts of events and, especially, perspectives, involves both being empathetic enough to understand those perspectives and critical enough to place them in context for readers.  Said differently, empathy and criticism ought to grow together rather than occur serially:  we assess best when we understand well and we understand well when we have delved deeply and critically.  To return to the wisdom of Tony’s first post, being accurate is how the press expresses neighbor-love.

This clarifies why liberals like me dislike Fox News (let alone Drudge, Infowars, etc.).  We don’t dislike Fox because it is conservative; we dislike it because it isn’t accurate.  We hear positions we don’t hold being treated as our own and we hear accounts of events that lack the context necessary to accurately understand them.  I imagine that this is why thoughtful conservatives don’t like MSNBC (let alone Mother Jones or the Daily Kos)—though liberals like me would also quickly argue that Fox=MSNBC (let alone Drudge=Mother Jones and Infowars=Daily Kos) are false equivalencies.  Being willing to listen to many voices isn’t the same as according all those voices the same worth.  A popular meme making the rounds these days notes that if a journalist hears one “expert” saying it’s raining and another “expert” saying it isn’t, that journalist’s job isn’t to give both experts equal time; it’s to go look out the window and report what is actually happening.  Both experts should be heard and even taken seriously:  seeking after the truth, defending their right to free speech and treating them with civility demands as much.  Their opinions, though, should be tested against reality and disseminated as such:  maintaining an informed citizenry for whom freedom of speech is meaningful and civility valued demands this—as does the commandment against bearing false witness. 

This also, incidentally, clarifies why we see red when we hear persons in power talk about “alternative facts” and “fake news” and the President of the United States refer to the mainstream media as an “enemy of the people”—and why we sometimes get reduced to babbling incoherence when some conservative commentators either repeat such language or take our anger as evidence that we’re irrational.  We really are far more concerned about the future of the Republic than about losing whatever political debate we happen to be in these days—though we’re also concerned about losing those debates if we see those losses as allowing an increase in human suffering.  

There are recent studies arguing that conservatives and liberals increasingly perceive the world differently.  Perhaps Tony’s arguments about Americans distrusting media and the need to get around that distrust by building social trust via a new empathetic paradigm for doing journalism is a response to the trends these studies reveal.  I guess I’m just not yet convinced about the cause/effect relationships here.  It seems to me that distrust of the media is the result of the way some news sites confuse information and opinion, the multiplication of perspectives with the validity of those perspectives, and “fair and balanced” reporting with accurate reporting.  As a result, they misinform rather than inform and such misinformation isn’t so much a manifestation of the growing distance between perceptions of the world as it is a primary cause of that growing distance.  And I just don’t know that Tony’s serial “empathy to objectivity to criticism” approach resolves these problems.  Maybe results will prove Tony right.  If Tony’s approach takes us forward, I’ll be glad that I’m wrong. 

IV.  Speech, Civility, and Worship       


 As I close out this third and last post for “Respectful Conversations,” I want to make one last point about the importance of civility and free speech.  In its long history, the church has sometimes responded to questions about the wider body politic by refusing to engage them.  Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is a recent manifestation of this approach, but there have been many others.  The approach gets a fair amount of support from secularists because its effect is to quiet religious voices in public places.

As a Christian standing within the Reformed tradition, it’s not so much that I distrust this approach (though I do); it’s that I don’t find such an approach theologically coherent.  If God is at work in the world, then looking out, discerning what God is doing beyond the walls of the church, and aligning one’s work and life with what one discerns God doing seems pretty fundamental to a life of Christian discipleship.  All that work takes Christians out into a world that benefits from and calls for civility and a defense of free speech.  Discerning what God is doing and aligning one’s life to God’s work is no easy set of tasks, but then Christians aren’t called to do easy things.

Toward pursuing this work and doing so in ways that express neighbor-love, those of us in the Reformed tradition have a helpful question to use as a rule of thumb for faithful public engagement:  Can we imagine what we’re doing as an act of worship?  Given that proper worship involves doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8), such an approach lends itself to the promotion of civility-as-neighbor-love and the promotion of free speech as an instrumental good that makes a publicly worshipful life possible.  (You can find a much more extensive version of this argument in my book, Believing Aloud:  Reflections on Being Religous in the Public SquareSo perhaps my answer to the questions Tony raises about how liberals and conservatives should engage each other in both the academy and in journalism is this:  as long as they can imagine what they are doing as proper worship, they are on solid footing and can figure out how to disagree from there.

Hopefully, Tony and I have modeled that.  I'm grateful to Harold for giving us the opportunity to disagree freely and with civility and, more importantly, to Tony for being a thoughtful partner in this conversation.  

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Reader Comments (1)

I am skeptical, but I would like to see more people with this ethos try. Whether we are running for office or not, we can try to arrest the bellicosity and instead present a generosity of spirit

February 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Lena

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