At a time in our national life when everyone can see that the virtue of civility is in alarmingly short supply, no one makes a better case for this virtue than American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks. I heard him make the case at BYU a few months ago, and he has just published a similar plea in a New York Times op-ed.
The force of Brooks’ case for civility lies especially in the fine personal example he represents. While making no apology for the generally conservative opinions he maintains on substantive policy questions, his generous outreach to those who disagree, his humility in recognizing the hard questions he has not answered, and, especially, the composed, guileless and benevolent disposition that his character exudes, bolster our confidence in the possibility that civic friendship can overcome partisan rancor.
Brooks finds the underlying cause of the annoyance of incivility in the deeper disease of contempt. Following the lead of bad media examples, we are sucked into the cycle of “motive attribution asymmetry”: those who agree with me are assumed to be moved by love and justice, and those who oppose me are haters, un-American, etc. To fix incivility we must then cure contempt. Brooks proposes that we recover mutual respect by recognizing that disagreement and competition are good for democracy. We all have good intentions, we just disagree — so let’s talk about it.
As men and women of goodwill we naturally want to rise to Dr. Brooks' virtuous challenge to dispel contempt and enter into the respectful competition of democratic debate. But doesn’t even vigorous debate depend upon some shared standards and common understandings? Our worries about the preconditions of respectful debate are confirmed, unsurprisingly, by a glance at the comments posted on Brooks’ article. We have only to scroll to the second comment to read this from a defender of homosexual marriage: “How can I feel anything but contempt for people who want to stop me from getting married?” Someone else might similarly ask: “How am I supposed to respect someone who argues that a baby should be killed if it interferes with its mother’s career choice?”
A political community is not a debating society; we don’t just make our best case, perhaps get awarded some points, and go home. In politics, someone wins, and who wins matters — it matters for the kind of lives we live and, if we happen to choose to raise children, for the kind of life that they may hope to live. And if such questions could be settled by simply respecting everyone’s right to live as he or she or “they” pleased, then we wouldn’t be having the “civility” problem that so concerns Arthur Brooks. Every system of “rights” accords with and favors a certain understanding of what is good, a certain common basis of respect, if you will, a certain regime of civility. Civility or civic friendship is not a mere procedural matter or a problem of good manners; it depends on preserving or achieving some common ground concerning the essential character of our community. Now that such common ground seems to be beyond our reach, Brooks’ invitation to those who fundamentally disagree to simply embrace the fun of argumentative competition can only seem a little quixotic. No doubt we can do better than contempt, but alarm and diffidence seem appropriate.32 comments on this story
Arthur Brooks’ advice that we summon the better angels of our nature and enjoy the respectful competition of ideas may not be quite up to the challenge of fundamentally opposing worldviews in contemporary America. Certainly Brooks is right, though, that we should not let even profound disagreement become an excuse for intemperate or ugly behavior. Brooks rightly recommends that we ourselves will be happier if we learn to respond to contempt “with warm-heartedness and good humor…” If that is too optimistic, I would at least go as far as to recommend, say, an equable and temperate disposition even, or rather especially, where the gravest matters are concerned. A person at peace with himself does not lash out at others. Resolute opposition to bad ideas is essential to good citizenship, but anger and invective are even worse for the agent than for the intended object. Those who seek to honor the truth as well as to respect other persons should exhibit a reasonable confidence, without bluster or cruelty. This would not exclude a candid assessment of ideas that are unfounded and dangerous.
Christians, such as Arthur Brooks and myself, honor the transcendent obligation to love our enemies. But that is quite different from believing we don’t have enemies.