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From a President who often seems mean-spirited and petty, to angry mobs threatening their opponents with bodily harm, to smugly superior journalists and entertainers preaching their bottomless contempt to a Pavlovian audience of unthinking conformists, the observation that much of our national conversation is mired in incivility and vulgarity seems undeniable.
Whether or not this is new is debatable. Heated political exchanges are nothing new; yellow journalism and intemperate pundits are not a 21st-century phenomenon, nor even a 20th. What seems likely is that the scope of incivility has increased, upward to the President and Congress, downward to every citizen with a microphone or Twitter account. Partly this is the product of greater participation: when everyone has a voice, a lot of people with nothing useful to say will nonetheless say it loudly.
In such a heated atmosphere, it’s difficult to resist joining in, piling on. I’ve certainly fallen prey to the temptation, as much as I try to resist it. We should all make a greater effort to slow down and dial back the outrage, focus more on ideas than on individuals, spend more time trying to understand each other than scoring points with barbed comments and cheap wit. If civil society is what we want, we should try to be more broadly civil.
But there’s another aspect to civility, one less obvious than a rude tweet or a vulgar stand-up
journalist comic. This is respect for alternative viewpoints — at least, for those that are not obviously far outside the bounds of humanity and decency, or wildly irrational. This is deep civility, the willingness not only to be reasonably gracious in one’s discourse but also sincerely thoughtful in one’s engagement with ideas.
This kind of deep civility is difficult for both conservatives and radicals, for those wary of change and for those enthusiastic for it. But it’s the kind of civility that will be required if we hope to become more broadly decent because the casual disrespect for ideas and beliefs is the engine that drives the rage we see.
Those on the right, who value tradition and are skeptical, wary, fearful, or otherwise resistant to change should keep in mind what they know to be true: that the old ways aren’t always the best ways. More importantly, they must not assume that those with radical ideas are bent on destruction, or that their desire to effect change is evidence of a wish to tear down the civilized world and introduce barbarism. Whatever one thinks of the virtue of the ideas they espouse, one should try to credit them with decent motives and engage them accordingly.
Those on the left, who are eager for change and confident that the change will be good, should honestly face the reality that change brings inherent risk, that unintended consequences often lead to unexpected and undesirable — and sometimes catastrophic — outcomes. More importantly, they should keep in mind that those who oppose them are not consumed by hatred and a desire to return to an ignoble past, but rather by a wish to preserve and defend what they sincerely believe is good.
I am a man of the right. As long as hatred, bigotry, and small-mindedness are the motives imputed to me because of the views I hold, I must struggle to assume the decency of those with whom I disagree. But I do believe that most people — left and right — are decent; that everyone I know personally is a decent person who wants to make the world better, and that that’s true of most people; and that the ugliness we see springs more from human frailty and imperfection than from malice.
Perhaps the most destructive word introduced into our popular lexicon is hate. It’s time to be a little more charitable in our assessment of motives so that we can discuss the worthiness of ideas rather than attacking the people who hold them.