Civility doesn’t just make our system function, it also makes it noble

Michael Gerson
Friday, June 7, 2019
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Syndicated Columnist

In his influential 1984 book, “The Naked Public Square,” Richard John Neuhaus recalled attending an event featuring the late Jerry Falwell Sr., who delivered an angry excoriation of liberals and other supposed enemies of freedom. Seated next to Neuhaus was a clean-cut, nicely dressed, well-spoken young man. Following the speech, the young man said of Falwell: “He’s a very great man, and often he’s very vulgar. I would be more hopeful about America if we had more vulgarity like his.”

In Neuhaus’ account, the young man went on to paraphrase (with a smile) a quote attributed to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels — “When I hear the word civility I reach for my gun” — and to argue: “Their way of doing things means they continue to be in control. We mean to take over — nicely, if possible, but if that’s not possible, well, civility is not the highest of the virtues.”

This argument is evergreen on the left and right, because it is less of an argument than a temptation — the temptation to see politics only as a matter of achieving certain policy outcomes, rather than the expression of certain underlying moral commitments. Why value civility if it doesn’t immediately serve the cause of virtuous change? Why honor pluralism if it doesn’t result in the triumph of our version of good and true?

The debate on these questions has been recently renewed by a group of bright, articulate and morally adolescent social conservatives who have adopted their own version of being “woke.” Politics, they seem to have discovered during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, is war. And war is hell. Which makes civility a form of disarmament. The objective of politics, in this view, is not the building of coalitions around the common good. It is, as conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari describes it, “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

This viewpoint may be perennial, but it is also perfectly suited to the Trump era: Persuasion, compromise and politeness are for losers. Do unto others as they have done unto you. And worse.

Those disturbed by this attitude but not entirely sure why should read Peter Wehner’s new book, “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.” Wehner — who is the successor to Neuhaus in the moral vigor and clarity of his arguments — makes a strong case for civility as an indispensable democratic virtue.

First, according to Wehner, “civility is central to citizenship.” It is the strong force that makes civic cohesion possible. “When civility is stripped away,” he argues, “everything in life becomes a battlefield, an arena for conflict, an excuse for invective. Families, communities, our conversations and our institutions break apart when basic civility is absent.”

Second, a commitment to civility is an expression of our respect for other human beings. “Undergirding this belief for many of us is the conviction that we’re all image-bearers of God — ‘a work of divine art’ in the words of theologian Richard Mouw — which demands that we respect human dignity.”

Third, civility allows us to discover the elements of truth that may reside in someone else’s version of it. We should not assume, says Wehner, that “those who hold different views than we do have nothing to teach us.” Civility is one expression of an appropriate epistemological humility. This does not mean that truth is relative. But it does mean that elements of the truth are more broadly distributed than we sometimes imagine.

None of this, in Wehner’s argument, means that people should lack conviction or passion. “One can be a vigorous and forceful advocate for justice without being uncivil,” he argues. Wehner cites Martin Luther King Jr. as an example and quotes Yale professor Stephen L. Carter: “The true genius of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not his ability to articulate the pain of an oppressed people — many other preachers did so, with as much passion and as much power — but in his ability to inspire those very people to be loving and civil in their dissent.”

Those who see politics only as a method to defeat enemies and advance favored aims have lost sight of something important. We should honor democratic values such as civility, not only because they make our system function, but because they make our system noble. We should treat our fellow citizens with respect because we share a role in, and responsibility for, an experiment in self-government that remains the last, best hope of earth.

(Contact Michael Gerson at michaelgerson@washpost.com.)

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