civility revisited

My friend and colleague Elizabeth Corey has written a lovely defense of civility as a political virtue. Her case is essentially prudential, grounded in what should be the obvious fact that the winners of any given American political fight will still be living in the same country as the losers:

What happens when one side has won? Will the tactics employed in winning have made the victory worthwhile? Will the winners restore civility, or will they decide that the losers, having held the wrong ideas, must be dominated and forced into submission? These questions highlight the problems with political warfare within a country, just as in a marital fight or neighborhood dispute. What was said in anger and frustration will not be forgotten, and all the participants must still live together. The insults will often outlive the battle and poison the community, foreclosing the possibility of connecting in other ways.

Moreover, Corey argues, the American founders built a system that disincentivizes heatedness and extremism of passion, and rewards instead patience and collaboration:

Recognizing the universal inclination toward excessive self-interest, Alexander Hamilton pleaded for moderation (and implicitly, civility) in Federalist 1. There he lamented that political parties would likely “hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” Yet he knew that in politics, “as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.” Thus Hamilton and others advocated for a system in which power checked power, and no one person or branch of government could dominate opponents in this way.

To practice civility, then, is to work with the grain of the American Constitutional system.

Corey’s argument has received a rather scornful reply by Scott Yenor, but unfortunately Yenor pays no attention to what Corey wrote and devotes his time instead to constructing a straw man. Central to Yenor’s response is his claim that “civility demands that we … put the best construction on everything,” which is, he says, suicidally naïve. But Corey never claims that civility makes such a demand; nor does any other defender of civility that I know of. Civility is a set of practices, and those practices can (and if Corey is correct, should) be cultivated regardless of what the practitioner knows or guesses about the motives and character of the person on the other side of an argument.

Yenor has a long laundry list of situations in which leftists have been uncivil to conservatives — I guess he couldn’t find any examples of the reverse, though I’m sure he looked hard for them — and claims that civility “cannot provide an adequate political response in such circumstances.” If by “adequate” he means “sufficient,” then Corey doesn’t claim that either; the distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions applies here. Civility can be a necessary political virtue without being the only one needful.

Yenor asserts over and over again that civility is useless or worse, but he never once addresses Corey’s arguments for its prudential usefulness, especially within the American constitutional context. If he had tried to address what she actually argued — instead of building straw men and making the utterly ad hominem suggestion that she has “excessive worry about gaining a reputation for incivility” — he might have found the case against civility harder to make than he does.

But there’s something on the other side of prudence and usefulness, at least for some of us. Let’s move towards that.

I want to return to a passage that I earlier quoted with ellipses and quote the whole of it: “civility demands that we teachers (and we Christians) put the best construction on everything.” (Again, the claim is simply false, but never mind.) So Yenor is a Christian. What consequence does that fact have for his thinking about politics? It’s hard to tell from this piece. But I think one ought to be able to discern something even in so brief an essay, if only because of its topic.

At one point he writes,

Civility is a philosophic and scholarly virtue. Still, there is a chasm between philosophy and the city. The place of civility in politics is much more circumscribed. It is pretty to think we are not at war. But if we are at war, then civility is worse than useless. It is unilateral disarmament. Civility is a philosophic and scholarly virtue. Still, there is a chasm between philosophy and the city. The place of civility in politics is much more circumscribed. It is pretty to think we are not at war. But if we are at war, then civility is worse than useless. It is unilateral disarmament. It is a lullaby that prevents us from seeing and acting as is necessary or that presumes that the conflicts are less fundamental than they are.

Insofar as civility has any role in politics whatever, then, it “is a virtue fit for small ball politics, not for civil wars, cold or hot.”

What I wonder is whether civility is a Christian virtue. That depends, as I wrote a while back, “on whether ‘civility’ is a useful shorthand proxy for a series of traits that certainly are Christian virtues: patience, forbearance, kindness, generosity, turning the other cheek, blessing those who spitefully use you, etc.” Whether civility is indeed related to those virtues — for the record, it certainly is — there seems to be no place for any of them in Yenor’s conception of politics. He certainly gives every appearance of conceiving of the sphere of politics as a realm where the writ of Jesus does not run. Jesus seems to be on the other side of the “chasm” Yenor describes.

I hear all the time from my fellow Christians arguments along the lines of Yenor’s: that pollitics is a hard game, that these are not ordinary times, that we are in a crisis, that desperate times require desperate measures, that, yes, trying to practice the virtues we are repeatedly commanded in Scripture to cultivate is in politics naïve and indeed indefensible — that we must do what is “necessary.”

Elizabeth Corey has made an eloquent prudential case for civility in politics, which deserves a more far more careful and attentive engagement than Yenor has given it. But prudence is not the only consideration for the Christian. If anyone lived through extraordinary circumstances, it was a a man who was rejected and scorned by his own people, then arrested, tortured, and crucified by Roman officials, but who nevertheless said of all his killers, as he hung dying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Such absolute forgiveness may be beyond our reach, but perhaps the more easily acquired virtue of civility is achievable. Indeed, I suspect that it is, and moreover is, according to a calculus Yenor disdains, necessary. 

P. S. Whenever I make this argument, or one like it, I get at least one email from a reader who reminds me that Jesus drove the moneylenders from the Temple. This event looms large in the imaginations of many Christians, so large that it displaces everything else Jesus ever did or said. Jesus may have made some casual comments about turning the other cheek and blessing those who spitefully use you, but he turned over the moneylenders’ tables so watch me kick some ass. (This is not a tendency confined to the religious right, by the. The most enthusiastic proponents of this particular hermeneutics I have ever seen are decidedly left-wing pacifists.)