Lamentations Rising: Civility Part 2

Eric Liu: Politics is about “blood and guts.”

In the run-up to Nov. 6, laments about the decline of civility have continued to mount—as seen in headlines such as “A Call for Civility in Days Leading up to the Election,” “Can Civility Be Returned to Politics,” and “Reporter Confronts Obama Over His Lack of Civility.” The latter story, from Fox Nation, cried foul over President Obama’s off-color remark suggesting that Mitt Romney is a serial prevaricator.

We need critiques of incivility, early and often in an election year. And for a particularly thoughtful and earnest one, I recommend James Calvin Davis’s recent essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” in which he adds a Calvinist punch to such virtues as humility—“an important Christian corollary to the belief that God is God and we are not.”

But we also need critiques of civility itself, or its depth and relevance to questions about justice, truth, and solidarity.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton, hits a few of the high notes in his Oct. 16 opinion piece in Time, “Civility is Overrated.” He gives civility its due, but says that focusing on it can make us “pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also—in fact, primarily—about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong, this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.”

Rational dialogue is just a “tiny” piece of politics? I hope not, but listen to Liu as he draws nearer to the core question of justice.

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

I highlight here “levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration.” Naming that, and doing so with a touch of rage, ought to be part of civil discourse.

Civility is about Caring

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was similarly underwhelmed by the usual pleas for civility. “Personally, I worry more about what’s happening to civil rights than to civil discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about civility if all it meant was good manners, manners often at the expense of morality,” he wrote in an essay on civility and multiculturalism that appeared in his 1999 book The Heart is A Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

But, for this liberal Christian stalwart, civility was never about good manners. Look at how civility took on both a theology and an epistemology, a concern for truth, in Coffin’s hands:

At its most profound, civility has little to do with taste, everything to do with truth. And the truth it affirms, in religious terms, is that everyone, from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet, is a child of God, equal in dignity, deserving of equal respect. It is a religious truth that we all belong one to another; that’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.

The takeaway? “Caring, I believe, is what civility, profoundly understood, is all about,” Coffin said.

If his essay were less about multiculturalism than about economic justice, he would have undoubtedly emphasized that civility is, above all, about caring for 100 percent of God’s people—but especially for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. How the weak are faring in a society increasingly in the grip of the strong is a fair question for the civility patrol. …read more

Knights and Death Mongers: Civility Part 1

From an ad sponsored by the Knights of Columbus

Civility—the word, if not the social attribute—has crept back into the political repertory. In the remembrances of George McGovern this week, headline writers made sure to highlight the former senator’s “legacy of civility.” Many others have bemoaned the lack of it, all through the 2012 elections. And, the Knights of Columbus recently launched a “Civility in America” campaign.

As (last I checked) a member in good standing of that Catholic fraternal order, I received an email announcing the initiative, under the heading, “Help us mend the tone of America’s political discourse.” The message offered some examples of my fraternal dollars at work. These included full-page newspaper ads inviting people to sign the Civility in America petition, which blandly calls on politicians and pundits to adopt a “civil tone” and focus on policies rather than personalities. A Knights-commissioned poll also found, unsurprisingly, that most Americans regard our politics as uncivil.

I was pleased to know of this effort, especially in light of something I recall from 2004—a cover of Columbia magazine, the organ of the Knights, distributed to its 1.8 million members during the presidential election season that year. I can’t seem to find a copy of that edition, either online or in my periodical closet, but I remember a kicking donkey of the Democratic Party, depicted with the words—“Party of Death.”

We all have our moments of rhetorical excess. But I think a nice way to start off a civility campaign would be to make it clear that you’ll no longer refer to your political opponents as death mongers. The Knights have yet to make that particular pledge.

“Civility” seems to waft in and out of public discourse, probably because people are unsure of it. What is it, anyway? Politeness? If so, it’s not much a virtue, at least not a political one.

In his highly readable 2001 book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville characterizes politeness as “a show of virtue, its appearance and nothing more.” But the show must go on. Comte-Sponville explains, “We end up resembling what we imitate, and politeness imperceptibly leads—or can lead—to morality.”

And surely, civility is knitted to some real virtues. To name a few: humility, tolerance, and gentleness, all of which can leaven our public conversation.

I like, as far as it goes, a definition circulated by the Institute for Civility in Government.

Civility is about more than merely being polite, although being polite is an excellent start. Civility fosters a deep self-awareness, even as it is characterized by true respect for others. Civility requires the extremely hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and perhaps fierce disagreements. It is about constantly being open to hear, to learn, to teach and to change. It seeks common ground as a beginning point for dialogue when differences occur, while at the same time recognizes that differences are enriching. It is patience, grace, and strength of character.

That’s a relatively strong notion of civility, but how deeply does it bring us into questions at the moral core of politics, having to do with justice, truth, and solidarity? I’m not sure, but I’ll take another swing at it before the season of incivility draws to a conclusion on November 6. …read more

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