It is a good thing that disputes are no longer settled by resort to physical violence. But words can cut as deeply as knives and pierce the heart like shots fired from 20 paces. Words are now our weapons of choice, and we fire them at will, over vast, fathomless chasms of despair.
Sometimes it seems we no longer live in a civilized society. We often equate civility with weakness and cowardice. “You hit me; I’ll hit you harder.” But this essay is not about fixing blame, it’s about fixing problems, taking responsibility for our personal shortcomings during this national crisis.
It is a national crisis because the uncivil rot starts at the head of state where inventive filled tweets and name-calling set an appalling example of what not to do, how not to be. Such behavior dehumanizes, spreading like a cancer in our body polity.
Not that I am a paragon of civility. For example, a recent conversation with a close friend turned testy after he compared Thurgood Marshall unfavorably to Clarence Thomas. “That’s like comparing a used Yugo to an expensive Mercedes.” I said indignantly. “Guess which is the Yugo.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” my friend replied stiffly.
“That’s hardly an opinion,” I said, voice and blood pressure rising. “It’s an obvious fact; who could argue that!”
“A fact or an opinion?”
“It’s a fact; everybody knows that. Compare Marshall’s great record with Thomas’ paltry record. Marshall risked his life for Civil Rights; Thomas does all he can to destroy them. The Voters Rights Act for instance; Marshall worked tirelessly to pass it; while Thomas almost single-handedly gutted it, writing that States no longer restricted Blacks’ access to voting. That’s like saying that nobody speeds anymore, so let’s remove all speed limit signs.”
So busy making my point, I didn’t notice that the night had changed. A warm, convivial evening with friends turned awkward and uncomfortable. By insisting that my view was the correct one, I stumbled into the twilight zone of uncivil discourse where relationships die.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the first recorded essayist, wrote vividly about civility. Montaigne saw civility as the overcoming of the will to power, the natural desire to dominate others. Without civility there is only the will to power; the desire to exert superiority over others: ‘I know better than you; I am right; you are wrong.’
Relationships based on power dynamics don’t last. Like houses built on weak foundations, they collapse.
Civility, Montaigne said, values freedom of expression above all else. It rejects “every sort of tyranny, both in words and acts.” Free expression is fundamental to a just and civil society. Montaigne argued that we should be open to all opinions, embrace heated discussions.
“I do not hate opinions contrary to mine,” Montaigne wrote, “...there were never in the world two opinions that were the same.”
The most important quality in nature is diversity, and the most important diversity is diversity of minds. If two people are thinking the same thing, only one of them is thinking.
Montaigne wrote that free speech requires an openness to different ideas and conflicting opinions: “No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me” whether it agreed with his own or not. Civility isn’t tolerance. “Tolerance” assumes judgment in the sense that we tolerate what we have judged to be wrong or deficient. Civility respects differences, whether we understand them or not. Those who disparage the opinions of others often doubt their own.
Realizing my lapse into incivility, I apologized to my friend and tried to explain that in the world and time in which I grew up, criticizing Justice Marshall was considered apostasy, almost sacrilege. Justice Thomas was considered an abomination. To think otherwise was to risk tribal censure.
I realized that respecting the opinions of others need not diminish my own. Perhaps now we can begin a national renewal of civility where all the name calling stops and we begin to realize we are all in this together.
About the author: Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney and former Traverse City Human Rights commissioner.