April 25, 2022


The Conversation Crisis: Civility

By: Chris West

My last blog post, The Conversation Crisis: Discernment, briefly discussed the importance of civil discourse and one potential reason why the American public is severely lacking in this area, that is, a lack of discernment. Unfortunately, the lack of discernment and discretion alone cannot account for the tremendous problem in our public discourse. 

Perhaps you, as a virtuous and wise citizen, have (at least mostly) acted with discernment and discretion when tackling the elephant in the room… whatever the beast’s name may be…. And have still found that your opinion was squashed or your voice silenced! 

In today’s divided and tense political climate, no one is a stranger to intolerance. 

Narrowly defined, intolerance is “ability or willingness to tolerate (i.e. allow without interference)  something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” 

This debate is certainly not new. In fact, the argument for tolerance dates back to the 1640s when the western world was anything but tolerant.

In his book The Enlightenment, historian Ritchie Robertson describes toleration as one of the primary ideas that we inherit from this period, which he identifies as occurring from 1680 to 1790. According to Robertson, this shift towards toleration resulted from the violence of Catholics against Huguenots (Calvinists) from 1562 to 1598, The Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-1648) which killed nearly a third of the German population, the murderous rampage of Spanish troops in Antwerp against French protestants in November 1576, and Cromwell’s brutality against the Irish uprising of 1641. The push for tolerance came out of a history of religious and ideologically motivated violence in Europe that left millions dead. 

Debates about civility and toleration waged in the halls of the English Parliament. Its proponents were statesmen like Oliver Cromwell, John Milton (yes, the author), and Rhode Island founder, Roger Williams. 

In response to his political opponent John Cotton, Williams wrote The Bloody Tenent, which argued that religious persecution was not only ineffective at making converts but what little effect it had made really poor excuses for religious people (duh). Political intolerance and persecution only made conformists and dissenters, it couldn’t spur on the authentic transformation and religious conviction these policies hoped for. 

In this publication, Williams writes, “Men’s consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained. And whenever men have attempted anything by this violent course, whether openly or by secret means, the issue has been pernicious, and the cause of great and wonderful innovations in the principallest (sic) and mightiest kingdoms and countries.”

This idea lit a fire… literally. When the book was first published it was burned in London; fearing that such ideas would promote a society without civility and would allow for the spread of false (ie other) religions or doctrines (hetero-orthodox teaching). Eventually, though, this idea caught on. 

In 1689, the English parliament passed the Toleration Act which, essentially, guaranteed rights to nonconformists to practice whatever religion they so choose and hold whatever beliefs they desire. 

Even then, not everyone agreed. In that same year, John Locke’s 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration, read, “For it will be very difficult to persuade men of sense that he who with dry eyes and satisfaction of mind can deliver his brother to the executioner to be burnt alive, does sincerely and heartily concern himself to save that brother from the flames of hell in the world to come.” Even after the act as passed, we know that the world remained (and continues to remain in some places) a dangerous place for dissenters, radicals, free-thinkers, innovators, and those that dare challenge the status quo. 

In the words of every middle schooler in history class to the chagrin of teachers everywhere, “Who cares, what does this have to do with me, today?” 

Glad you asked.

History shows us what is at stake in an intolerant society: conflict, division, and violence. By allowing other voices to speak, especially those we disagree with, we are permitting access to thoughts that might challenge our perceptions, preconceptions, and false ideologies. 

When we make spaces open to dialogue and allow others to share their voice, we are engaging in the virtue of civility. 

On an episode of Sean Carroll’s MindGames Podcast, political theorist Teresa Bejan defines (mere) civility as, “minimal conformity to culturally contingent norms of respectful behavior” or a mode of behavior that, “Reflects our commitment to sharing a life, even when we don’t share a faith.”  As citizens in a pluralistic democracy, who recognize the value of diversity and honest conversation, we should also recognize the value of toleration and civility. 

Civility is not responding with violence or coercion but instead responding with politeness and kindness. It sounds easy, maybe even too low a bar, but history shows us that this can be a daunting task. 

And at times, this is costly. Family thanksgivings sitting between Aunt Muller, the QAnon conspiracy theorist, and grandma Hillary, who believes Trump is the literal anti-Christ and has the YouTube video to prove it… well it can be uncomfortable and downright unenjoyable. We don’t have to engage everyone, at all times (discernment is a virtue for crying out loud!) but silencing others is a bad use of authority and power, and frankly, a bad idea. 

While it may be annoying or frustrating, engaging in conversation and being open to learning from others is helpful and can be life-changing. As an AF chapter leader, I’d rather encounter someone that is kind and open and who I totally disagree with than to be right and stubborn who is on my team. 

So perhaps, stop blocking people you disagree with and start some new conversations. Even if you don’t change their mind, though perhaps you will, you’ll make a new friend. Isn’t that a better goal than trying to be right anyway?