Commentary Magazine


Some Thoughts on Civility

There is a lot of talk about civility in public discourse these days. This is a matter on which Michael Gerson and I have written about before, including in COMMENTARY (see the end of this essay) and in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (see chapter 6, “Persuasion and the Public Square”).

On this topic, then, I would make several points.

First, there are eminently practical reasons for public figures to use reasonably civil language. After all, they are engaged in efforts to persuade people, not browbeat them. Language that is reasonable, judicious, and sober tends to be preferred to language that is abrasive and abusive. People tend to be drawn to political movements and political parties whose representatives are winsome rather than enraged, who radiate a sense of self-possession and good cheer rather than what Nietzsche, in On The Genealogy of Morals, called ressentiment, or resentment.

Lincoln put it as well as anyone when he said:

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim “that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what you will, is the great high road to reason.

Among the gifts that political figures like Ronald Reagan and intellectual figures like Irving Kristol gave to conservatism was help in shedding its attitude of defensiveness toward the world. That is not a place to which conservatism wants to return.

In addition, treating people with civility is connected to a view of human beings and their inherent dignity. Making bad arguments obviously doesn’t make someone a bad person; and even when one is on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks (as many people in politics have been), there are still standards one ought to adhere to.

Now, I wouldn’t pretend for a moment this is easy or that I myself haven’t edged up to, or even at times crossed, the line separating spirited debate from inappropriate remarks. Readers of CONTENTIONS are free to review my exchanges with Joe Klein, Jonathan Chait, John Derbyshire, and others and decide for themselves. Suffice it to say that what St. Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — are not in oversupply in politics. And for those of us who are engaged in politics and the philosophies and ideas behind it, the temptation to be drawn into the mud pit is a strong one.

Still, it’s not self-evident, at least to me, how one should respond when on the receiving end of unfairly personal, and even slanderous, attacks. I imagine the answer lies somewhere on the continuum between silence and a seething, equally libelous rejoinder.

A few other caveats are in order. Among them is that too often, civility is itself used cynically, as a conversation stopper, as a means to end debate. For others, civility is a synonym for lack of principles, for hollowed-out convictions, for those who believe in nothing and are unwilling to fight for anything. And still others make the mistake in believing that civility is the antithesis of passionately held principles, passionately expressed.

In fact, forceful arguments (like witty ones) are often the best arguments. Rhetorical tough-mindedness is not only appropriate but welcomed. Clarity often emerges in the wake of conflicting views. Too often, those who tell us to “tone down the arguments” simply want the arguments themselves to go away. But politics is, in its deepest and best sense, a series of ongoing arguments about perennially important matters like justice. (See the debate between Thrasymachus and Socrates for more.)

There is, in the end, no neat or easy prescription on how to conduct oneself in public life at any given moment. As a general matter, though, grace and generosity of spirit are to be prized. And if we’re lucky, they can even move us several steps away from a political culture based on enmity to one based on greater understanding and even, from time to time, a measure of respect and forgiveness.