The Adults in the Room

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Remember when we were kids and we got in a quarrel because we both wanted the same crayons or toys, and an adult stepped in and helped us to figure out that we either had to share and work it out, or go to our rooms? Usually we figured out that some crayons or toys and being in the same room was better than no toys and our own rooms. When we were older, when we got into fights over a disputed call playing baseball or basketball, we eventually figured out that playing the game was more fun than continuing to argue or going home. We’d call a do-over, or flip a coin and get on with the game. We were learning to be the adults in the room when no adults were around.

Watching our political discourse, and the social media discourse around it. I find myself wondering where have all the adults gone? What I’ve seen over the last number of years is an escalating fight that has lost the sight that you need an opponent, an opposition, those who are on a different team to have a good game–that it is the game and not the fights that matter (unless you are talking about hockey). Of late, it seems that the objective is not merely winner take all and leave nothing on the table. It is winner subdue or wipe out all and be the last ones standing. Suddenly it is OK to show up in public buildings with assault weapons, destroy property, and threaten the lives of public servants and their families.

The game I’m talking about is our country–this troubled place of 330 million people drawn from all over the world, from every religious faith and none, living in rural, urban and suburban settings, black, white, brown, and more. Increasingly, the question may be asked, could the fabric of our union unravel, and what could that mean?

For so many years, I think we’ve thought, “it could never happen here.” Except that it has within our very short history. It was called the Civil War. Over 600,000 young men from the north and south died because inflammatory talk escalated from words to a contentious election, and shots fired.

As a Christian, the most troubling part of that history was that churches mirrored the divisions in American society. People who believed they worshiped the same God, read the same Bible and recited the same creed didn’t care that they were deeply divided from each other. Most churches, north and south, didn’t care that blacks also worshiped the same God.

It doesn’t appear to me terribly different today except that the vitriol comes via social media and competing news networks, rather than old fashioned newspapers.

It can happen here. Children who play with matches often don’t really understand that you can burn down the house until they burn down the house. Then there are those who don’t seem to care about the house as long as they are the ones wielding the matches.

There are so many different doomsday scenarios for how it could unravel. Anne Applebaum, in The Twilight of Democracy fears the rise of authoritarian government. In a place that appears to be unraveling, a strong leader who sets things in order, no matter what else they do, has an appeal. David French, in Divided We Fall (released yesterday), thinks we could be headed toward a bloodless secession as red states and blue states ideologically harden and the United States becomes two or more separate “countries.”

I find myself wondering at times that Octavia Butler in The Parable of the Sower might be more prescient. She portrays a dystopian United States of 2024, rife with disasters both ecological and political, and where street gangs rule (writing in 1993, she portrays a California increasingly ravaged by fire seasons).

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that when you listen to those doing the fighting, they all love the country and are deeply concerned about it. Granted, many of their concerns are different. What troubles me is that our binary, zero sum thinking that says you have to choose between caring for mothers and the unborn, that you have to choose whether to care for blacks or police, that you have to choose whether to care for business or God’s good creation, is leading to destroying the very place we love. Have we lost the creative imagination and skill at negotiation found at the intersection of both-and?

It’s time, and past time, for the adults in the room to step forward, and for those who should be adults to act like it. We cannot keep escalating our toxic discourse, including our toxic social media postings that are just kindling for the fire. Whether our future is authoritarian, or one of Balkanization, or civil war in our cities (which we have already tasted in some places), each signals the death of “the land that we love.” Each signals the triumph of the argument over the game.

I don’t know if it is too late at a national level for “adults in the room” to matter. All I know is that I want to work for solutions in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them” wherever I can. If someone has to be my enemy for me to be part of your party, I’m not interested. Perhaps it is quixotic to hope that there will ever be enough adults in the room to expect our political leadership to act this way. But that is just politics. There is so much more to life in this country than politics, which we’ve made into a kind of god. Perhaps the best thing at times is to dismiss this as childish and start looking for adults of integrity who will seek the common good, not as political messiahs, but as public servants.

All I know is to start with us, dear reader. Will you be an adult in the room? Will I? And who else can we get to join us?

Fostering Civil Spaces on Social Media

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Social Media: Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay, [CC0 1.0]

Several good friends have recently announced their intention to leave Facebook until after the U.S. national elections in November. Their reason is their own mental health. The level of argument, vicious attacks, false or misleading claims, and fake news are putting off increasing numbers who once thought these sights to be a fun and social way to keep up with friends. Is that the way it has to be?

In recent years I’ve been increasingly involved both as a participant and a page administrator on Facebook and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good has been conversations, particularly around books, where people have shared about their love of books, what they love reading, what they don’t (and these can be polar opposites), and discussions where people learn from each other, and about new genres of literature and authors they might like and learn from.

The bad have been arguments where people go beyond reasoned and vigorous exchanges to slogans, epithets, and dismissive remarks in increasingly heated exchanges. Others often just shut down and leave.

The ugly comes when people resort to personal attacks on the character of each other, or of other figures, or even bullying and abusive behaviors.

What have I learned about creating civil spaces?

  1. If you are expecting perfection, forget it. People have bad days. Some people only want to assert an idea without defending it. People misunderstand each other. There are “trolls” and downright mean people. The truth is, we have bad days with the people who are closest to us.
  2. Probably the best thing that can be done is to have clear rules about posting online. Social media researcher J. Nathan Matias has found that clear posting rules with clear consequences both reduce harassment and increase participation. On my book page, I bar any personal attacks, profanity, and bullying, and any “marketing” posts for books (open that door and that is all you get). Others can include things like off-topic posting. Positively, I encourage respectful dialogue, and focusing on our common love of books. I think it doesn’t hurt to remind people why a group exists.
  3. Moderators or page administrators have to be willing to enforce rules. This is easier when you have them. It can mean shutting down toxic threads, deleting posts that violate your rules, and posting reminders about page or group rules when needed. I try to send a friendly message to those who break rules the first time. With most people that’s enough. Often they even apologize, especially when they realize they are dealing with a person rather than an algorithm. The only person I ever banned was someone who called another member “stupid.” When I messaged him about it, he called me “stupid.” NEVER call page admins names!
  4. Watch “vigorous” interactions closely. I try to let them go as long as they don’t degenerate to name-calling or personal attacks.
  5. Learn the limit’s of your particular page or group’s capacity and exceed them at your peril! Sometimes you discover them when you exceed them! I’ve found you can talk religion as long as you don’t go negative on others. Politics–forget it in this climate. Controversial issues? Sometimes, the issue is how “in your face” the post or comment is to opposing positions.
  6. On pages I curate, I try to mix it up to allow for diversity–serious with light, posts appealing to a variety of interests, posts from diverse authors and sources, with a healthy dose of humor–even if it is lame! While we have basic page standards, I want people to know that we don’t want this to be an echo chamber but a place where different people can meet.
  7. I try to promote engagement. Sometimes over a hundred people respond to the “Question of the Day” on my page, and many others check out the contributions.
  8. I avoid commenting on many posts except when I’m directly asked a question. I want people to have a sense that the page is about all of us, not just me.

And a few things about other pages and groups:

  1. Know and follow the page rules and never cross the admins.
  2. Engage what others post as well as respond when people engage you. Be friendly, and a little humor never hurts as long as it is not belittling to the other person.
  3. Don’t be that person who talks incessantly, or dominates posts.
  4. Learn to distinguish between things you disagree with, or are different from your experience, and genuinely objectionable behavior where you are disrespected. Don’t get into it with with such folks–just message the admin. They may not immediately spot your interaction if there is a lot of activity. This is what they get paid the big bucks for (usually nothing!).

Mostly, it comes down to the things that make for good conversations in any setting. Funny how we forget these when we are online. That, I suppose, is where the rules really help.

One final thing. Kindness never hurts.  Often when there is an unexpectedly strong response, there is often more going on than meets the eye. For example, someone responded very strongly to an article I posted on vaccines one time. As we interacted, I discovered the reason why. The person had lost a family member to an extreme reaction to the vaccine. The conversation moved from a discussion that could be controversial to a connection with the deep pain that comes from loss. A saying that is variously attributed is perhaps a good thing to remember in all our online interactions:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Review: Confident Pluralism

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Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Summary: Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible.

One thing almost no one would disagree about today is that the United States faces deep divisions over a variety of issues, conflicting beliefs, and groups in competition and sometimes conflict. The question is whether we will find ways, not to eliminate our differences, but to “compose” our differences, to find ways to live together, to reach understandings, and to respect each other, and allow the robust expression of our diverse ideas and lifestyles. As John Inazu admits, this may be messy, but the alternative is downright scary.

Inazu, as a professor of law and political science, brings together the work of these disciplines in framing both the legal, indeed Constitutional commitments, and civic practices that make confident pluralism possible. He begins by arguing that there are several key freedoms rooted in the first amendment that need strengthening:

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

I consider these important proposals, having worked with religious groups on a public university campus who had imposed on them leadership selection practices that would prevent them from choosing leaders according to the beliefs and mission of the group and that threatened the withdrawal of funding and access enjoyed by other groups if they did not comply. It can be very scary when the a small group comes up against the institutional power of a large university, but the greater loss, it seems to me is the chilling effect these measures have on the expression of religious beliefs that may not conform to the “orthodoxy” of the university and the lack of opportunity for other students to encounter and engage such beliefs. Whatever pluralism that survives such measures is neither robust nor confident. I would attest to the kind of strengthening of first amendment protections which Inazu proposes.

Inazu then goes on to discuss the civic practices that sustain a confident pluralism and that result in what he sees as the desired outcome of such practices — warm, respectful relationships across our differences. He begins by proposing three civic aspirations:

  1. Tolerance: a willingness to accept, if not approve, genuine differences.
  2. Humility: a willingness to accept our own limits and to be open to what we might learn.
  3. Patience: learning to persist and endure in understanding when this is not easy and when mutual understanding does not come quickly.

He explores two problems that any of us who have tried to discuss controversial notions on social media have faced: the hurtful insult (you are stupid, naive, a bigot, etc.) and the conversation stopper (that’s just close-minded, extremist, homophobic, racist, etc.). While freedom of speech certainly protects such statements, it shuts down any kind of civil discourse, what Inazu calls “living speech.”

He then considers the ethics of collective action: protests, boycotts, and strikes (pretty relevant, huh?). Are the boycotts of Abercrombie and Fitch, Hobby Lobby, Mozilla (for its selection of a CEO who had donated to anti-LGBT rights causes) appropriate? On balance, as messy as it can be, he would say yes provided we pursue tolerance, humility, and patience.

And that brings him to the last chapter. Throughout the second section, he speaks of two people, Jerry and Larry. It turns out they represent two people, Jerry Falwell, the preacher, and Larry Flynt, the pornographer. At one time they had been both personal and ideological enemies, with Flynt printing a vicious parody of Falwell and Falwell countering by suing him. I will leave you to discover how it happened, but the two became friends toward the end of Falwell’s life, traveling around the country debating, disagreeing, but exchanging Christmas cards, family pictures and weight loss tips. They vehemently disagreed about many things but Flynt wrote, “the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning the famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.” Inazu argues that it is not agreement that we will necessarily achieve but the finding of common ground and the bridging of relational distance where “them” becomes “us”.

I’m persuaded that Inazu’s slim book needs to become a manual for all of us who care about finding a way to bridge the divides in our society before inflammatory words descend into civil war and anarchy or harden into tyranny and oppression. While I believe the political protections Inazu proposes are vital, the virtues of genuine tolerance of difference, humility about ourselves, and patience that takes the long view are most essential. Will we allow these virtues to sustain our pursuit of the common ground of our shared humanity, and our shared citizenship in this “democratic experiment?”

 

Review: Adventures in Evangelical Civility

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Adventures in Evangelical Civility, Richard J. Mouw. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: An intellectual memoir, tracing Mouw’s efforts to find common ground while maintaining reformed and evangelical convictions.

“Evangelical civility.” It sounds like an oxymoron to some. Yet for those who know Richard Mouw’s work, or have the privilege of personal acquaintance with him (which I do not), you know that there is at least one example of a person for whom both terms are true without contradiction.

In this “intellectual memoir,” Mouw shares with us his own intellectual journey and engagement with others. We have closely written chapters on his studies in philosophy and theology, his wrestling with “antithesis” in Van Til, the reformed doctrine of total depravity, and how far common grace goes in providing a basis for common ground with those who are not among the elect.

Mouw also traces his engagements with other thinkers and theologians throughout his career. Perhaps most fascinating was his relationship with John Howard Yoder. What could a Calvinist and Anabaptist find in common? In this and other relationships there were differences to be sure, and yet surprising places of common ground. This is true for him in encounters with Catholics, and more controversially perhaps, with Mormon scholars. Mouw also recounts his work at Calvin College and later as President of Fuller Theological Seminary, a place that allows for “big tent evangelicalism.” In a chapter on being a public intellectual, he writes of a non-Christian academic friend’s challenge:

” ‘You have a problem, Mouw,’ he said. ‘Right now Fuller manages to maintain the highest level of scholarship with a strong connection with grassroots evangelicalism. But that can’t last. Either you are going to start dumbing things down or you are going to move to the ‘ivory tower’ thing.’

    In candor I have to admit that my secularist friend may have been a little too optimistic in his reading of the present relationship between the evangelical academy and popular evangelicalism. There is a ‘mind’ within the evangelical movement, but there is a serious gap between what the mind says and how the rest of the body often acts. In our public life, especially in recent years, we evangelicals have consisted embarrassed ourselves by mindless behavior. My friend was offering important advice, however. To the degree that there is some mutual support between the evangelical academy and the grass roots, we need to work hard to keep the mutuality strong. If the creative tension cannot be maintained, the results will be tragic. The two components of evangelicalism need each other. Neither can sustain a healthy evangelical character without the other.”

These words give a good example of the convicted civility in search of common ground that is the thread running through this memoir. In his concluding chapter, he makes an interesting point in noting that conviction and civility are never actually in tension because the Christian is called to both and the practice of civility is itself rooted in conviction. This last chapter exhibited, to me, a great deal of vulnerability. He returns to qualms he expressed in opening pages about whether the quest for common ground concedes too much, and yet argues for this as the way of faithfulness as well as consistent with his own calling in life. And he concludes with the example of one of his predecessors at Fuller, E. J. Carnell, whose call to theological humility in his inaugural address was roundly criticized and whose life ended in a profound depression in a hotel room where ingested an overdose of sleeping pills. He quotes a portion of that address, with which I will conclude:

“Whoever meditates on the mystery of his own life will quickly realize why only God, the searcher of the secrets of the heart, can pass final judgment. We cannot judge what we have no access to. The self is a swirling conflict of fears, impulses, sentiments, interests, allergies and foibles. It is a metaphysical given for which there is no easy rational explanation. Now, if we cannot unveil the mystery of our own motives and affections, how much less can we unveil the mystery in others.”

It has been said more simply, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (Attributed to variously to Plato, Philo, and John Watson). Perhaps this is the common ground of our humanity that calls us to civility in the hard and common battle of life. Mouw’s memoir is indeed an exemplar of civility without sacrificing conviction.

Is Convicted Civility Still Possible?

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Rev. John Home, one of the Scottish Calvinists who was friends with David Hume.

I’ve just begun reading Richard J. Mouw’s memoir, Adventures in Evangelical Civility. I suspect that some would believe that the last two words in this title are an oxymoron. What caught my attention was a discussion in the first chapter on his pursuit of “convicted civility,” a chapter entitled “Calvinists in an Edinburgh Pub.” He speaks of the efforts of a group of Calvinists including John Home to promote a more productive engagement with Scottish Enlightenment thought. One of his regular dialogue partners was the skeptic, David Hume, whose ideas gained ascendancy in most academic circles in Scotland. He asks himself:

“For all my good intentions and proper Calvinist motives, I have asked myself on occasion whether I am unwittingly giving aid and comfort to the increasing relativism of our own day, encouraging the widespread assumption that being clear about borders is not a matter of great importance.”

Mouw touches on one prong of a two-pronged dilemma for those who think convicted civility is possible. One prong is that conviction is muted by association with those who differ. Either the sense is one of “agreement by association” or that truth is relative–you have your truth, we have ours. And the point is missed that this is an engagement about questions of truth upon which we may disagree. Logic actually dictates that we both cannot be right, at least in the same way. We could both be wrong or one of us right and one wrong, or both of us partially right in differing ways, at best.

The other prong, which may be more prevalent of late, is that when we disagree about a question of truth, we cannot do so agreeably toward each other. If you disagree with me, you must hate me, and there is something morally defective with you that you would disagree with me. What we miss here is that to disagree about ideas we hold, even hold deeply, is not to disagree with us in the sense of our fundamental dignity.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to find people characterized by “convicted civility.” It is more common to find those who are convicted but uncivil, and perhaps even more common in our “tolerant” age to find those civil but unconvicted. It has been observed by a number of people, including O’Neill’s son, that Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were partisan foes who could fiercely disagree, then hammer out compromises, and enjoy drinks together at the White House. Convicted civility isn’t nice, but it provides the basis for a functioning civil society.

If ever there was a time for the practice of “convicted civility,” we are in one of those times. It feels to me sometimes like I live in two countries, each of which detests the other and wishes it could get rid of “them.” Sometimes, it seems that these two countries reside on my Facebook newsfeed which makes me wonder what would happen if I invited all my Facebook friends to the same party! (It also makes me wonder what it says that I somehow remain friends with these two countries!) I don’t know whether it is possible to practice “convicted civility” in this climate, but I also know that the future trajectory of the alternative seems fraught with even greater dangers.

Here’s what I think it takes to practice “convicted civility”:

It involves conviction:

  • It means that we have a clear sense of what we believe about the good, the true, and the beautiful and know what core beliefs we cannot compromise.
  • It means that we can articulate that sense in plain words.
  • It means that we can explain why we hold these convictions.
  • It means we are willing to accept the consequences of holding those convictions.
  • It means that we can distinguish between convictions on which we believe we cannot compromise and matters of application, or opinion, or even liberty where we might differ or where multiple good paths are possible.
  • It means a willingness to admit where we are wrong when persuaded because we are lovers of truth rather than lovers of being “right.”

It involves civility:

  • It means I respect the person with whom I disagree as an equal.
  • It means that I recognize that none of our disagreements undermine the bond of common humanity we share.
  • It means a willingness to find the places of common ground that arise from that common humanity, while being honest about our differences.
  • It means a willingness to grant the same level of attentiveness to and understanding of the words and ideas of the other that I would wish.
  • It means I refuse to attack the character of a person when I disagree with what they think.
  • It means that I might remain friends with someone with whom I deeply disagree, even sometimes affectionate friends.

Sadly, it appears we are in a day where those who would practice “convicted civility” face attack from both their convictional compatriots and from those with whom they differ, despite their civility. From the former, they are viewed as sellouts, even “relativists”, particularly if they acknowledge that the “others” have anything valid in their thought. From the latter, the danger is always one of being branded “intolerant” simply because they have the courage at points to disagree. Often the former attacks are far more vicious and disheartening.

Why bother then, you might ask? I guess it comes down to the fact that I’m convinced and convicted that it is the right thing to do. If we are going to have a civil society instead of civil war (without or with guns), then we have got to figure out how to do this. Short of tyranny, mass deportation, or genocide, we are not going to get rid of half the country, let alone that guy on Facebook who persists in disagreeing with us. I wonder if we have stopped to look at it that way, because if we do we might yet have a chance to back away from the precipice. What it seems that we can’t do is just think that our toxic rhetoric, and our inability to maintain any kind of civil dialogue across our deepest differences can persist indefinitely without consequences, none of them good. Alongside that, I would take “convicted civility” any day. How about you?

Two Qualities for Public Conversations

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Let’s face it, many public conversations are about as pleasant as the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Often they are less real conversation than serial monologues where each person makes talking points and attempts to score rhetorical points against the other. Very few represent a serious attempt to hear one another that affirms what we hold in common, carefully makes distinctions where we differ, and argues both thoughtfully and graciously for those distinctions without personal animus. I would suggest that there are two essential qualities, or two “C’s” for good public conversations.

Perhaps before I discuss those “C’s” I should try to articulate what I mean about what is a “public conversation.” I see a public conversation as one that occurs in a public forum, whether that be a political debate, or a town hall meeting, or a university seminar, or a presentation in a community room at one’s local public library. It is a conversation about some public and social good, about what will benefit the flourishing of human beings and the social and physical environment in which they live. And it is inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the public attending. No one group controls or presumes to control the conversation.

I am indebted to an article titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale for the two “C’s. In answer to the question of how a Christian scholar might speak with a Christian voice into the public conversations at a university he writes:

“Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.”

The first of the two “C’s” is one he mentions by name. It is charity. No public conversation will be constructive if it tears down people. No conversation will be constructive if it assumes the worst in others. No public conversation will be constructive if begins without good will toward others and the effort to find common ground in our humanity and in at least being willing to give a fair hearing to the ideas of the other. I find it helpful to assume that another has been at least as thoughtful if not more than I about the matter we are discussing. All this is charity.

The other “C” summarizes the idea of a “voice that can be heard.” The idea here is cogency, “the quality of being clear, logical, and convincing; lucidity.” It means speaking with a voice that is knowledgeable. It is a voice that speaks in terms that are shared and may be grasped by the listening public and the others in the conversation. It means a voice that makes its case with thoughtful argument and not simply provocative soundbites. If charity takes the dignity of others seriously, cogency takes the minds and thoughts of others seriously.

It seems to me that it is these two qualities, practiced together, that produce a third quality, a third “C” that is so wanting in much of our discourse, that of civility. I wonder if one of the criteria we ought to apply in considering candidates for any high office is whether they practice the qualities of charity and cogency resulting in civil public conversations. It seems to me that if they do not meet this criteria (and I think there are those who do not), then they should not be considered fit candidates. Civic leadership at any level should rest on the quality to engage with civility with the civitas, the whole body of citizens one aspires to serve and lead.

Equally, in the academic world, which is often known for its vicious politics, it seems that the qualities of charity and cogency also apply. Universities needn’t be places where people agree. In fact, it is the disagreements that make them interesting places! The rigorous clash of ideas sharpens thinking but it needn’t make enemies. And for those to whom Wolterstorff speaks, Christians, his challenge is one of choosing charity and the hard work of cogency, over pat answers and put downs.

I have no illusions that a magic wand can be waved as in a Disney movie that makes everything sweetness and light. But if enough of us practice these qualities in whatever public forum we engage, and prefer those for leadership who approximate to these virtues, we might at least give others the whiff of something better.

But will they follow their noses?

A Civil Public Square at Work

This past week, I had the chance to visit the beautiful campus of Miami University at the height of its autumn glory. However, I don’t have pictures of tree-lined walks and pleasing campus buildings. Instead of celebrating the aesthetics of Miami, I want to talk about Miami as an example of a civil public square at work.

Miami Code of Love & Honor

Miami Code of Love & Honor

During a meeting I was in, I was given a card that is given to all students and faculty at Miami known as the Miami Code of Love and Honor. Here are the fourth and fifth statements on this card:

“I respect the dignity, rights, and property of others and their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.”

“I defend the freedom of inquiry that is the heart of learning.”

I learned that these principles had been put to the test in the past week as Miami hosted George Will, Washington Post columnist for a lecture. Will’s lecture was heavily protested because of his June 6, 2014 op ed in the Post.  In this article Will makes the statement describing victimhood as “a coveted status that confers privileges”. He then goes on in this article to focus particularly on the growing discussion around sexual assault.

Understandably, anyone who has been raped or knows someone who has would be infuriated by Will’s inference.  One student is pictured in an article in The Miami Student holding a sign that reads “My status as a victim is so coveted that I moved schools because I was taunted by my rapist and his friends.” Another student sign is quoted in the article that read, “Sexual assault leaves you with scars, not privileges.”

The best construction that can be placed on Will’s article is that it was a badly executed attempt to raise a wider conversation about the language of victimhood and the dangers of abridging “due process” rights in allegations of sexual assault. Rather than focus on those issues, which are significant discussions in the higher ed world right now, I want to focus on what the administration at Miami did and didn’t do.

They did not rescind the invitation for Will to speak although heavily pressured to do so as have many other high profile colleges when they discover that an invited speaker holds views considered objectionable by at least part of the college’s constituency. Nor did they suppress protests against Will’s ideas and presence.

Instead, what they did was to allow him to speak and defend his ideas, which were questioned during a question and answer time. At one point, Will made the argument, “The First Amendment does not say, ‘Congress shall not abridge freedom of speech unless the speech annoys somebody,’” he said. “And if you’re not annoying someone when you speak, you’re not speaking properly.”

Miami University President David Hodge wrote a letter explaining the university’s decision to allow Will to speak in terms of the Miami Code of Love and Honor:

“Bringing prominent speakers to campus provides unique opportunities for our students and community to engage with high profile, influential individuals. Many of these individuals are controversial and their positions often challenge us, especially when they appear to clash with our core values. Our values also dictate, though, that we protect “the freedom of inquiry and the right to hold and express disparate beliefs.” While the urge to suppress the voices of those with whom we disagree may be great, it is instead our responsibility to engage and challenge those opinions with evidence, reason, and purpose.”

He goes on to state how the university supported freedom of inquiry and the expression of disparate beliefs in this instance:

“The response of the Miami community was respectful and constructive. Those who disagreed with the choice of Mr. Will as a speaker expressed their disappointment with thoughtful letters and petitions. Some who attended the lecture challenged Mr. Will on his opinions during the allotted question period. Those who protested his lecture effectively expressed their points. A teach-in at Cook Field provided a great deal of information about Miami’s efforts to educate students about sexual assault, to support survivors fully and sensitively, and to take appropriate action against those found responsible.”

This, it seems to me, is a civil public square at work. Civil public squares do not suppress objectionable beliefs. They challenge them through argument, protest, and advocacy of what are thought to be better ideas. I suppose a number walked away unhappy on the different sides of the discussion. Reading the account of Will’s lecture, I find myself thinking, “there are things he just doesn’t get.” But considering disparate views is often uncomfortable. Serious inquiry doesn’t always make me happy. But if it results in sustaining our “first freedoms,” in sharpening our thinking about the challenging issues of the day, and in better policies in pursuit of the good society, then it will have been worth it.

Whence Civility?

Driving on one of our main thoroughfares, we were stopped behind a car with a bumper sticker that was such a vulgar slam against our President that I will not repeat it here. There was a time when we wouldn’t speak of the county dog-catcher in such terms. And yet this is increasingly commonplace.

So often we act like this is just harmless good fun. But I think this is like children who don’t realize that playing with matches can burn down the house until it does. We attack the character of our office holders until any self-respecting person is unwilling to endure such treatment.  We engage in ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with us, not realizing that we might in the process turn fellow-citizens with whom we share much in common and with whom we differ on some things into intractable enemies. We reject the time honored arts of compromise in which reasonable people find ways to arrive at the best approximation to agreement on what will serve the public good.  And in the process, we convince the more volatile among us that violence and force rather than reasoned discourse are the only way to get things done.

What is most troubling to me is that it seems that we easily forget that those with whom we differ and those they represent are also citizens and that we all share the rights, responsibilities and considerable benefits of living in this country. Why must we be attacked as a country to remember this? Why must we identify some greater enemy to stop treating each other as enemies? And why do we forget that the idea behind e pluribus unum is that our diversity coupled with our common citizenship (we are all Americans) is what makes us strong as a nation.

For those who are Christians, we believe that the diverse members of our one body are like diverse parts of a single body. Eliminating our diversity is like cutting off a part of our own body. Can we determine that while we will engage in vigorous and principled argument about what best makes for a good society, that we will refuse to attack the character of those with whom we disagree, because to do so is to attack our very selves?

If we value those with whom we disagree, we might even listen to them and try to figure out why they disagree with us and how they could think the way they do. A civil discussion engages what a person is really saying, not our caricature of what they are saying.

Above all, civility is rooted in the idea of treating others as we’d like to be treated. We don’t want our own character to be impugned. We consider our own ideas rational and well thought out.  We want others to carefully listen to us and to engage us in terms of what we are actually saying. This is the Golden Rule principle, and for good reason–the practice of this rule is precious, and sadly, all too rare.