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The Value of Exercising Civility—in Both Oikos and Polis

“I’m done with my grandfather,” a friend confided in me after a recent family gathering. “He compulsively talks about how George Soros is to blame for everything—and then refuses to recognize any evidence to the contrary,” she said. “He has his talking points, and there’s no changing his mind. It’s not even worth having a conversation.”

In our polarized moment, we sometimes struggle to fulfill basic social or professional obligations with family, friends and co-workers who hold views we find objectionable. But we ought not cut people off without thinking carefully the consequences. It’s not just that we risk losing important relationships. People whose ideological or political opinions we oppose may still have something to offer. Cutting them off leaves us both intellectually and emotionally poorer.

Most of us have stories like the one my friend told me. And while the details differ, they all go to a central question: What is the unspoken social contract that governs how we discuss ideas? At what point do we no longer have to listen to what another person has to say?

When we discuss free speech, the conversation typically is framed in relation to the government’s power to shut down views within what Greek philosophers called the polis. But on a day to day basis, the more socially urgent task of defining the boundaries of legitimate speech often takes place within the oikos—the family and its domestic environs.

My friend’s grandfather fits the definition of fanatic that often is attributed to Winston Churchill: “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” But even at the height of her exasperation, my friend still would acknowledge that her relationship with him is about more than the edification and enjoyment she derives from their conversations. When she says “I’m done,” what she means is that the irritation she associates with their political discussions is so acute that—in that moment, at least—it overwhelms everything else she gets from that relationship. The challenge is to take a long-term view, and remember that such moments do pass. There’s more to life than politics.

I have a relative—a Canadian—who enjoys living in the United States, and yet speaks incessantly about how America is the root of all evil in the world. As you might imagine, I disagree with her: I’m a proud American, even as I acknowledge that my country has an imperfect record of acting on its professed ideals of freedom and equality. Nevertheless, I have an obligation to her—to be kind, to speak with her about other things, and perhaps even occasionally listen to her arguments about the United States, even if I have heard them before and don’t find them persuasive.

The marketplace of ideas has private and public stalls—and they operate differently. In the private sphere, whether at the dinner table or in the family car, you’re stuck in a one-channel universe: You can’t change your relatives or friends with a remote control or a mouse click. But in the public square, things are different. We have no pre-existing obligation to listen to anyone. We listen to someone because we believe or hope that he or she has something interesting or insightful to say. If they don’t, we move on. No one can read, watch or listen to everything; and we all have to prioritize.

Even amid the polis, however, we aren’t entirely bereft of obligations. Yes, citizens have the ability to shut out any viewpoint they find challenging or mistaken. But responsible citizens know that they mustn’t abuse this right. They must make at least some effort to expose themselves to contrary ideas. And so we must consider what overarching principles guide us when defining our obligation to expose ourselves to contrary opinions in the public sphere.

In a recent Quillette editorial, editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann wrote that “intellectual self-policing is happening more and more often, particularly for those living in tight-knit and politically homogenous communities.” Regarding the question of what range of opinions citizens should tolerate, radical ideologues have a clear answer. As Lehmann writes, “their position is that [any] debate “normalises” unsavoury people.” Quillette readers will immediately know that this is the wrong path. But if that’s not the answer, what is?

In his classic 1999 book Civility, Yale Law professor Stephen Carter provides helpful advice in this regard. He urged consistency in the principles we use to exclude people from public debate. Carter observed that there are many people we admire, even though they are morally flawed or hold certain abhorrent views. Charles Dickens was a cad who tried to have his wife sent to an asylum—but that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop us from enjoying Oliver Twist or teaching Dickens’ books in schools. Martin Heidegger became a Nazi—but the ideas he expressed in Being and Time still are regarded as important contributions to philosophy.

If we decide to listen to, and learn from, these flawed but eminent figures, however, we must be willing to extend the same charity to all—even (and perhaps especially) to our own relatives and friends in the oikos. If we are inconsistent in this respect, we risk indulging what Carter called a “genius license”: When people are sufficiently accomplished and famous, we ignore their vices and focus on their virtues, or assume that their world-class excellence in one area somehow defines their overall essence in a way that renders their flaws meaningless in some cosmic sense. But if they don’t clear that high “genius” bar, we dismiss them.

Carter agrees that certain truly extreme opinions deserve outright condemnation. But he categorically disagrees with “the notion that people whose views are virulently hateful should be totally excluded form the possibility of saving conversation.” He also rejects the idea that the hateful nature of a person’s views in one area always serves to disqualify them from serious consideration in other areas. (Of course, the converse is also true: Not everyone with outrageous views is masking some hidden genius. And sometimes, we really do need to make hard-and-fast value judgments. Should The New York Times offer op-ed space to the North American Man/Boy Love Association? I’m inclined to say no.)

When Columbia University invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus in 2007, critics denounced the school for offering such a platform to the anti-Semitic President of Iran, a terrorism-sponsoring country. Columbia’s President, Lee C. Bollinger, invoked academic freedom and free speech to defend the university’s invitation. But that rang untrue to me: This was not the case of a modern Dickens being invited to read from his latest novel, or a 21st-century Heidegger with insights to offer on phenomenology. Ahmadinejad was a known political entity, visiting the United States in his official capacity as Iranian President, and there was no real question of what sort of message he was going to deliver. It wasn’t as if there were any realistic chance of him offering some interesting and important address on the issue of, say, feminism, gay rights or ancient Persian artistic traditions.

Pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander wisely cautions that “every time we invoke free speech to justify some unpopular idea, the unpopular idea becomes a little more tolerated, and free speech becomes a little less popular.” And so in some cases, it helps to ask what motivates a particular speaker. Is the aim just to inflame and provoke, à la Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter? Or is it to educate and persuade his or her audience in good faith. What, for instance, was New Yorker editor David Remnick’s purpose in inviting former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to the 2018 New Yorker festival? My sense is that it was about engaging with Bannon’s ideas, and providing a speaker who could give voice to the tens of millions of people who voted for Bannon’s former boss, Donald Trump. That’s why it was wrong for Remnick to then renege on the invitation.

It is a tall order to listen to someone we find morally repugnant in the hope that they may teach us something. We are all inclined to prejudice and self-justification. But in order to grow—and in order for any pluralistic nation to function—we must be willing to be challenged in our beliefs. A willingness to listen requires us to first recognize that our shared humanity means that we have more in common than that which divides us.

Abraham Lincoln modeled in his First Inaugural an impressive statement of humility and conciliation on the eve of the Civil War, speaking of slave-owners: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” He knew that “though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Prior to delivery, Lincoln sought feedback on this speech from his incoming Secretary of State William H. Seward, who gave him six pages of suggestions for how to improve it. Lincoln accepted many of Seward’s recommendations, including Seward’s evocative ending: “The mystic chords…will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.” But Lincoln edited Seward’s contribution slightly, resulting in a line that is among Lincoln’s most celebrated: “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The distinction between Seward’s “guardian angel of the nation” and Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” is important. One appeals to a divine force from without, the other our divinely inspired nature within. Lincoln knew that it was only through individuals choosing to summon their inner, celestial virtue—mercy, forgiveness, empathy, understanding—that our nation had hope of enduring a period of deep social division. The same hold true for us today.

Alexandra Hudson is an educational consultant at the Indianapolis-based Liberty Fund, and is writing a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.

Featured image: “A Club of Gentlemen,” by Joseph Highmore, c. 1730.