“Love your enemies.”
Both sides of the current civility debate are stupid, like most debates in our poisonous socio-political discourse. Those who demand civility and those who demand action both base their logic on flawed premises that offer empty solutions.
The activist side of this debate is ultimately stupid because its reasons are infantile and petty. I say “ultimately” stupid, because there is something initially understandable to its claims. If someone wonders, “Why are those people being so shrill?” you could reasonably respond, “Well, if you believed like they do, why wouldn’t you be shrill?” If you really believed that Nazi-like political actors have taken over places of power and were continually maneuvering to take over more (including
Governor’s mansions and local city councils), then why wouldn’t you start sounding “shrill”? Conversely, if you really believed that babies are being murdered in certain subsidized facilities, and that their body parts are being sold to the highest bidders while governments and citizens alike turn either a blind or ignorant eye, wouldn’t you find it morally imperative to make a nuisance of yourself?
I’m not arguing for the equivalency of the two previous examples. I’m simply saying that there is something initially understandable in the disdain shown for calls to civility. For many, it must sound like a call to fiddle while Rome is burning.
Nevertheless, it’s still stupid, for the same reason the typical choice made in the “prisoner’s dilemma” is stupid. It is a selfish and petty attempt at mutually assured destruction for no other reason than to stick it to the other guy. Activist-types in the civility debate often ask, “Why should I be civil when I know they’re not gonna be?”
That’s not an unfair assessment. Activist-types on both sides of the political aisle have already destroyed lives and killed people. Protests turn to violent staged riots. Professors and public figures are assaulted on campuses and lose their jobs and careers. Politicians are shot on a baseball field in Virginia. Cops are murdered by a sniper in Dallas. Parishioners are gunned down in Charleston. Protestors are run over (and one murdered) in Charlottesville. Florists, bakers, photographers, and pizza makers have their livelihoods threatened. Abortion doctors are murdered and their clinics terrorized. Churches and campaign offices are firebombed and vandalized. Neighbor has already turned against neighbor. That is not pessimistic speculation: that is the daily news.
The activism side of the debate—the win-at-all-cost-to-stick-it-to-them side—has proven itself to end nowhere except the mindless destruction of petty tribalism. We don’t trust the other guy not to blow up the republic, and why should we? They’re libtard babykillers, or alt-right cryptofascist, or (what’s worse) their complicit enablers, those limp-wristed ‘proper’ folks who often call for ‘civility.’ So we’ll just blow up the republic too. We’ll beat them with batons. We’ll call them dirty names. We’ll strawman all their arguments while steelmanning our own. We’ll act as infantile and petty as possible, because that’ll show them.
So the activism side of the debate is ultimately stupid, and yet the civil side is just as stupid. Simply put, the ‘civility’ put forward by many well-meaning people doesn’t sound like anything at all. I dimly suspect that if you pressed them over the word, they would mumble something about niceness or politeness or perhaps even courtesy. But if you pressed them on those words—about what any of those things feasibly look like in practice—blank stares would most likely follow. They’re presupposing that the idea should be obvious when it clearly isn’t.
Again, there’s an initial understandability to the claims of the civility-types. The first is their instinctive suspicion (and sometimes clear-eyed observation) of the petty and idiotic mutually assured destruction of the win-at-all-costs activist-types. The second is their struggle to articulate what they mean by ‘civility.’ It really isn’t some rational, syllogistic thing (x + y = civility). It’s something larger than mere rationality can express. In its truest form, civility is an outgrowth of things that are deeper than syllogisms.
Of course, argumentative skill goes a long way to fostering civility, i.e., knowing how to actually hear, digest, understand, rearticulate, and then articulate your response to someone else’s argument or position. Argumentative skill is no guarantee of civility, but it does help by teaching you to separate the argument from the arguer. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a similar sentiment: an allowance is made for patience and graciousness and even some humility (after all, your argument could be wrong) with the other person regardless of their argument.
Nonetheless, argumentative skill is not enough. There are plenty of people with solid argumentative skill who are no better than the sophists of Socrates. It’s not enough to know how to separate the argument from the person making the argument, because you are still capable of dehumanizing and denigrating the person themselves.
It’s the dehumanizing and denigrating that is the problem, and they are what make our poisonous socio-political discourse ‘poisonous’ in the first place. The problem is not in how we treat the arguments but in how we treat the other person. It’s one thing to disagree viciously with someone’s beliefs or ideas; it’s quite another to act or speak viciously towards them. It’s one thing to speak boldly against what you sincerely believe is wrong; it’s totally another to deem your neighbor—because they disagree with you about what’s “wrong”—as having abdicated all their rights and dignity.
The truth is that the reason civility is so hard to articulate is because it is steeped in (at least in the West) Christian theology, on the simple yet radical call to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). There’s nothing there about compromising the Gospel or not standing for the truth. In a beautiful paradox that only a God-man could produce, the doctrine isn’t about doctrine at all. It’s about the other person. It’s perfectly Christ-like to extravagantly resist what is wrong, to take a flail of cords to the moneychangers in the temple. It’s also perfectly satanic to treat the moneychangers as subhuman. If one of them begs your forgiveness seven times, you must forgive them all seven times. If one betrays you with a kiss, you still call them “friend” (Matt. 26:47-50).
This is why the current calls for ‘civility’ are ultimately stupid: it is a call to an empty civility, gutted and neutered, meaningless niceness, politeness without substance. Civility without Christ is literally nothing at all, an emptiness to be filled by any charlatan or huckster. It is not without merit that calls for ‘civility’ are decried as the mere siren calls of oppressors: without the Christ-like love of the truth and love of neighbor, it’s just another tool for sophists.
Yet this same charge that condemns empty civility equally condemns empty activism. Both are Christ-less affairs today. Loving neither truth nor others, the one vapidly hand-wrings while the other barrels mindlessly over a cliff. It is absurd, it is farce and tragicomedy, because that’s what all Christ-less things are in the final analysis.
For the Christian—conservative or not—it is not about being civil or active but rather being like Christ. It really means standing solidly and loudly against evil ideas and evil behaviors and unapologetically and incredibly loving those that our tribe, ideology, or worldview deem hopelessly deplorable. Obviously, sometimes loving “deplorables” means standing against their evil ideas and behaviors, but it never ever negates the fact that they are a soul made in the image of God like you, fallen and broken like you, and like you in need of a Savior, one who already loved them at any cost.
About the Author
Jonathan received both his MA and MFA from the University of Memphis, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He teaches at the Center for Western Studies, is a native Memphian, and an avid lover of both great literature and animated movies. He has written for The CiRCE Institute and has been published in The Chesterton Review. He is fond of pie.