Civility in Political and Religious Debate

Joe Carter at the evangelical outpost is going after Ann Coulter. He’s very concerned about civility:

Our political culture has truly become debased when even conservatives now accept what James Q. Wilson has described as the elevation of self-expression over self-control. (Perhaps it is to be expected, though, of a movement that has replaced the wisdom of Russell Kirk with the soundbites of Rush Limbaugh.) We have heartily embraced the leftist ideal that we have an inherent right to be as stupid and as banal as we want. . . .

Now I’m not a conservative, and I believe that Ann Coulter is definitely an excellent target, though I would prefer to deal with how totally wrong she is than how rude. From my point of view there are plenty of rude people on both sides of the political spectrum, but I don’t think rudeness or incivility is their primary problem.

I’m led to wonder whether one of the signs of trouble in our political process is that we’re talking so much about how we say things rather than about what we say. I do believe how we say things is important. There are words and ways of expression that tend to produce dialogue and discussion, and there are others that tend to destroy it.

At the same time, despite any preference for civil debate, there are people out there who are just plain stupid. In fact I’m pretty sure it was Russell Kirk, whom Carter quotes favorably, and whose prose I truly enjoy despite differing from his positions substantially on many points, whom I heard lecture at an Intercollegiate Studies Institute gathering when I was an undergraduate. One of the students perceived him as being excessively negative about the American people and asked him about it. His response? “But I don’t like the American people. I think they’re dumb.” (This is strictly from memory, and the year was 1975 or 1976, so I could be wrong on my memory.)

The problem is that there is a point to civility that all political movements need to take into account. There is a big difference between persuading others in dialogue and firing up your own base. I really deal with this more in religious dialogue. Frequently people bring me jokes about various varieties of non-Christians, things that they think are a real killer. “How would a such-and-such answer this?” they ask me. Generally I have to say that they won’t be impressed. Atheists jokes may fire up the congregation by making them feel that they’re smarter than the supid atheist portrayed in the joke, but trust me, actual atheists you meet won’t generally be stupid, and they won’t be impressed with your joke that suggests they are.

The same thing goes for Republican jokes, Democratic jokes, or for that matter Moderate jokes. If you make the standard “nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead skunks,” I won’t even get offended while I catalog you as stupid and shallow. There’s a whole rhetoric involved in reaffirming our own beliefs and our own side, and assuring ourselves that we’re really smarter than average and better than all our opponents. In general, it fires us up for the fights against all those other people.

I expect such things will continue, whether I like them or not. When it all becomes a serious problem is when the fight rhetoric, the locker room hype becomes the sole way in which one communicates one’s message. That seems to me what’s been going on in American politics. I see it on both sides. Right now I hear repeatedly from conservatives here in the south (I live in a congressional district that went overwhelmingly for Bush in both 2000 and 2004) about how awful it is that people say the things they do about “our president.” But many of the very same people were saying quite similar things about Bill Clinton when he was president.

Which sneakily leads to my next point. Criticism is necessary and essential. If I think the war in Iraq is a mistake, it is dishonest and irresponsible for me to pretend it is a good thing. It is right and good to criticize the government and its officials for bad policies. We need to have a vigorous debate, but target that debate in such a way as to persuade. I could suggest attacking policies rather than people, but I think that misses the point. What I need to do is attack people for specifics if I want to persuade people who can be persuaded.

That is the distinction that I’m looking for: We need to express ideas with vigor, but use ways that have a chance to inform and persuade those who are in any sense open to it. From outside the conservative camp, I can say that Ann Coulter’s rhetoric is not all that helpful. It may stir up the conservative troops but it alienates even the “slightly less conservative” crowds. But at the same time I don’t want to see conservatives or liberals fail to express their viewpoints vigorously. Too frequently we see the alternative to rude attacks as being watered down statements that are practically meaningless so they won’t offend.

I appreciate vigorous statements of opposing postions. I expect to make vigorous statements of my own positions. Nonetheless, for the most part, I view the advocates of opposing positions as decent and sincere people who do believe that their policies–stupid as they sound to me–are for the good of their community or country. That is what I’d like to see in American politics–vigorous, clear debate on specifics, along with the acceptance that most of us want what’s best for the country.

I’m not sure that balance can be maintained, but I try. 🙂

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  1. I wish I could say that Coulter’s rhetoric doesn’t fire up some conservatives, but I can’t. In the circles I run in, she is despised as a bomb thrower, but too many people buy her books for me to write her off, unfortunately.

    I wonder what would happen if we all started listening – really listening, not hearing while planning our next debate point. There’s no respect these days, and it’s very disturbing.

  2. I think we take listening one step at a time. I want to make sure, however, that we don’t do this by abandoning principles. What we change is strategies and how we treat one another. Of course, with listening, we also risk changing our minds, which is a good thing, provided we are truly convinced.

  3. I don’t think I’m related to Russell Kirk, but I can’t help agreeing with his comment about the American people. But I can make an exception for those who can write things like: “Perhaps I just don

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