Tonight at 7:30 p.m. PST, Biola University will be live-streaming a conversation between Cornel West and Robert George, moderated by Rick Warren. It’s called “The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil,” and I’m honored to be here in sunny southern California for the event.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been chewing on the subtitle for this event: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil. When I first saw that phrase, I wanted to nitpick it by adding a word: “can.” Disagreement can make us civil, but it doesn’t always, right? Just read through internet comment streams or watch protestors heap insults on passersby. Disagreement is present; so is incivility. And the danger of disagreement devolving into violence never seems far away. Disagreement can make us civil, but it doesn’t necessarily do so.
The more I’ve considered that statement, however, the more I am convinced that adding the word “can” would blunt the claim. It’s true that disagreement makes us civil, once we reconsider the nature of disagreement.
First off, civility is what we aspire to, as people who disagree. The need for civility presupposes the existence of disagreement. When citizens disagree, they seek to persuade one another of truth, willingly extending courtesy to their opponent, even if they believe the opposing view to be wrong. We cultivate the virtue of kindness through frequent engagement with people who hold different views. So, the exercise of civility and tolerance depends on the existence of difference and disagreement. Intolerance and incivility shut down conversations. Disagreement and mutual respect open them up.
Secondly, disagreement makes us civil because — in a free society — we recognize the right of others to adopt a different perspective. Disagreement implies conversation. The reason I wondered why the subtitle didn’t say “can” was because I was assuming that disagreement refers only to the bare fact of “difference,” and we all know that differences of opinion can lead to incivility just as easily as tolerance.
But disagreement, in the way the organizers of this event are using it, implies a conversation between people with opposing views. Disagreement implies “arguing,” seeking to come to “agreement,” or “making a case” for a particular point of view. Seen in this light, incivility is the failure of disagreement, not its natural outworking. Chesterton was right: people quarrel when they can no longer argue. Quarrels interrupt arguments. Incivility is when we give up on disagreement and become disagreeable. The change is in us not in disagreement itself.
Civility doesn’t shut down debate and end arguments in the name of “niceness.” No, as Os Guinness points out, civility “helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good.” Robust, civil debate is not a problem to be managed; it is an achievement to be celebrated.
As Christians in a secular society, we must learn the art of dissenting charitably from the new cultural orthodoxy. We are called to go beyond civility to kindness; beyond tolerance to love. But civility is a starting point. And if civil discourse on issues related to life, marriage, and liberty becomes impossible in the next generation, let’s make sure the breakdown did not happen on our side. Let’s continue to disagree, not be disagreeable, because properly understood, disagreement makes us civil.