Defining Ideas

Restoring Civility In A Hostile World

Thursday, March 15, 2018
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Barbara Kelley

The current state of political and intellectual conversation is increasingly like the world William Butler Yeats described in his masterpiece, “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

Maybe it’s paranoia but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt the thinness of the veneer of civilization and our vulnerability to a sequence of events that might threaten not just the policy positions I prefer but the very existence of the American experiment.

What disturbs me is how we talk to each other and our unwillingness to give even a modest hearing to the other side. The Trump phenomenon is just one example.

I don’t like Donald Trump as a person and I dislike many of his policies intensely, but he has done some good things. People can’t seem to handle that ambiguity. The people who hate him can’t concede he’s done anything worthwhile. In fact, we’re told how his policies—the tax cuts, net neutrality, the spending cuts that will have to be made to pay for the tax cuts, deregulation—aren’t just bad ideas. They’re literally going to kill people; they’re murder.

On the other side, Trump’s fans find it hard to concede he’s done anything wrong. They ignore his dishonesty, his personal failings, his policy inconsistencies from day to day, and how many of his policies violate principles his supporters claimed to revere until very recently. Point any of these out and you’re told that it doesn’t matter because Hillary Clinton would have been worse.

On the surface, this is just politics as usual. Republicans hated Obama and Clinton. Democrats hated the Bushes, Reagan, and Nixon. And each side defended its own. That said, I’ve lived through all of those administrations, but this time feels different.

The media isn’t helping. Many first-rate journalists at first-rate publications have decided Trump is not just someone whose policies they may disagree with: they have decided he’s dangerous and a liar. They mock him in a way they didn’t mock previous presidents whom they didn’t particularly like. They may be right about the dangers posed by a Trump presidency. But their stance violates long-standing norms of their profession. It amplifies the resentment of Trump’s supporters and feeds Trump’s narrative that he’s an embattled victim. At the same time, there are journalists who trumpet every success of Trump’s while ignoring his shortcomings and failures or treating them like successes anyway. Journalists used to pretend they were neutral. Now it feels like they’re eager to assert their membership in one tribe or another.

And of course, it goes way beyond Trump. The same level of vitriol and unreason is taking root on college campuses and at dinner tables when families gather to talk about the hot-button issues of the day. Students are screaming at their professors over the pronouns they use. Everything seems magnified, full of passionate intensity, and I wonder if the center will hold. Civility is very much out of fashion.

The conversations in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting tragedy exemplifies the problem. Maybe it’s a good idea to arm teachers. Maybe it’s a good idea to ban gun sales to 18 year-olds. Maybe we should change how we respond to troubled teenagers. Maybe we should ban the AR-15. These are all potentially good ideas. The people I follow on Twitter are mostly really smart policy analysts, journalists, and economists. But they can’t rationally discuss these ideas at all. They use them like clubs to smash the foolishness of their intellectual opponents. A decent conversation might allow a compromise to emerge that could actually save lives. But that conversation isn’t happening. We just yell at each other, earning points with our friends and showing off how disdainful we are about our enemies.

It’s tempting to blame this loss of civility in our discourse on Trump himself. But I see the election of Trump and the way he governs as more of a symptom than a cause. Of course, angry political conversations are nothing new. But what appears to be new is a willingness to vocalize the hatred that resides in human hearts, and for both sides to claim the moral high ground. The only parallel in my lifetime is the 1960s and the protests of the Vietnam War. But that anger was about a war—actual life and death—and when the war ended, the rancor dissipated. We fight over everything now with the same intensity. The divisions and lack of respect we’re seeing threaten to become the status quo.

My response to all of this has been to stop paying close attention to the news. A part of me wants to go off to the eighteenth century and think some more about Adam Smith’s view of human nature, which he outlined in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, or improve my inadequate command of the guitar. But another part of me thinks that hiding from what is going on or standing idly by is the wrong thing to do. It feels as if we are at a crucial juncture. But what action are we to take, those of us who are alarmed at the state of the country? It’s not the heat of the political kitchen that is hard to take; it’s the fiery emotions that are spilling out of the kitchen and out into the dining room and into the streets.

So running away, while appealing, is the wrong thing to do. But what is the right thing?

To figure that out, we have to diagnose the malaise or disease we’re trying to cure. The underlying problem is very old: tribalism. The world is a complex place and it’s hard to have a full picture of what is going on. We do our best to make sense of what is happening and to find explanations for what we observe. Because we abhor uncertainty, we manage to convince ourselves that our tribe has found the truth: Republicans are evil; Democrats are evil; black people are the victims of a conspiracy by white people to oppress them; white people are being marginalized as their majority status dwindles… and so on. Subtlety is not our strong suit as human beings. We like simple stories without too much nuance—stories that often demonize the other side and its conflicting vision of the truth, which would otherwise threaten our worldview.

So we convince ourselves that the evidence speaks so loudly, so emphatically, that we have no choice but to declare our allegiance to a particular tribe. But it rarely crosses our minds to notice that the tribe we are in determines the evidence we notice and accept. This is also very old—a fundamental feature of human nature. What feels new is the confidence people have in the righteousness of their tribe and their truth.

Certainly some of this is due to the echo chambers we inhabit on the Internet. We tend to visit websites and follow people on Twitter and Facebook who think the way we do and reinforce the narratives we tell ourselves. It’s tempting to think that nothing has really changed and that social media just lets us see what is really going on. But I think it’s more than that. I think social media reinforces the simplicity with which we see the world.

Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has pointed out that there’s a destructive positive feedback loop operating today — my outrage doesn’t convince you to rethink your position, it only encourages you to ratchet up your own. He’s right. If you criticize my tribe, then I feel obligated to see your criticism and raise you one. Or two.

This tribalism means that deviation from the party line is increasingly unacceptable. The extreme version of this is so-called intersectionality. If you’re a feminist, you also have to oppose Zionism. Either you like everything Trump does or you’re the enemy. These kinds of litmus tests may be useful for gaining political power, but they discourage and even punish independent thinking. People are uncomfortable failing these tests of ideological purity. They don’t want to lose their tribal membership or identity.

The result is an unjustified confidence in one’s own side of the debate, whatever that debate is. People don’t just disagree with each other. They can’t imagine how a decent human being could disagree with their own view of race or the minimum wage or immigration or Trump. Being a member of the virtuous tribe means not only carrying the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself. You have to also believe that the people carrying any other card are irrational, or worse, evil. This means an end to not just civilized conversation, but often to any kind of conversation at all.

This intolerance and inability to imagine the virtue of the other side is the road to tyranny and chaos. It dehumanizes a good chunk of humanity and that in turn justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of. We all understand in some part of our being how dangerous self-righteousness can be. The left can point to the religious crusader who murders innocents in God’s name. The right can point to the millions murdered by Communists convinced they could remake humankind and bring heaven on earth. Somehow, we think the danger comes from the other side. But once people feel sufficiently self-righteous about their dislike for their opponents, violence comes easily.

If you agree that this dynamic is dangerous, what is to be done? One answer comes from Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. If you want to improve the world, he argues, first improve yourself. Read history and understand the dangers of self-righteousness. Read literature and understand the human condition. Know who you are and the strengths and weaknesses of being a human being. Learn the limitations of reason. Be an exemplar of personal virtue. This is good advice. It’s good for you—but it’s also good for the world, even if you believe it oversells the potential for individual action to ripple outward.

Tending one’s own garden before weeding out the ugliness in others is a good idea. But we also need to take deliberate steps toward civility when we inevitably interact with the rest of the world.

Don’t be part of the positive feedback problem. When someone yells at you on the Internet or in an email or across the dinner table, turn the volume down rather than up. Don’t respond in kind to the troll. Stay calm. It’s not as much fun as yelling or humiliating your opponent with a clever insult, but that kind of revenge isn’t worth it. It takes a toll on you and it’s bad for the state of debate. Stay calm, and your opponent might actually listen to you; you might actually change someone’s mind.

Be humble. Shakespeare had it right: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy. Human beings are inevitably cherry-pickers when it comes to making arguments, ignoring the facts and evidence that might challenge the certainty of their views. The world is a complex place. Truth is elusive. Don’t be so confident. Learn to say, “I don’t know.” Learn to enjoy saying “I don’t know.”

Imagine the possibility not just that you are wrong, but that the person you disagree with could be right. Try to imagine the best version of their views and not the straw man your side constantly portrays. Imagine that it is possible that there is some virtue on the other side. We are all human beings, flawed, a mix of good and bad.

In other words, be civilized.

Perhaps I am overreacting about how dire the situation is today. But at the personal level, it doesn’t matter. The virtues of humility and decency are timeless. They are out of fashion today, but through our actions, maybe they can become fashionable once again, and make the world a little lovelier.

Editors note: A version of this essay originally appeared at NewCo Shift at Medium.com.