by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
Is there a return to civility in our future? Our political culture seems to be getting increasingly more toxic. This path, if we stay on it, has a bloody end, and we already see an uptick in deliberate rudeness, harassment, vandalism, and violence committed solely because of political disagreement.
But nothing says we’re stuck on this path. Thoughtful Americans across the political spectrum have viewed this decline with increasing alarm. There’s the “pendulum” idea in politics that the further there’s movement in one direction, the stronger the pushback in the other till things turn around. Perhaps we’re about to see a pullback from angry partisans “taking to the streets” to confront political differences by exchanging punches instead of points.
Earlier this year, News & Observer editorial writer Jim Jenkins reminded readers of gentler times when people habitually managed to
maintain friendship no matter their other differences because they recognized that the shared values that should bring people together have little to do with politics. The values that matter are heart, generosity, compassion, concern for the children and parents of true friends, loyalty, character, respect.
I’ve long written about the need to cherish the many things in life above politics, especially including the ability to break bread together even if you have political differences. The alternative, as I wrote just a month ago, is soul-crushing.
So I was very encouraged to see two columns in the News & Observer online the same day last week. Connie Ledoux Book, president of Elon University, wrote about the importance of civil dialogue, arguing that “We can teach our students how to disagree.” Colleges and universities bear a responsibility for teaching students how to disagree and debate civilly, Book argued. When students are taught how to exchange ideas properly, they become more engaged in civic life.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, author and chaired professor of ethics at Duke University, made the case that society needs good argument. He opened with a compelling example that sounds quite impossible today — but which also points to that better way that also seems so distant right now:
“Best of Enemies,” by Osha Gray Davidson, tells an instructive story of overcoming extreme polarization. Ann Atwater was a leader in the Durham civil rights movement. C. P. Ellis was Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. Yet they became close friends. How?
They began by asking questions, listening to each other, and giving reasons. Atwater fought to improve housing because she wanted her children to have better lives. Ellis opposed integration in public schools, but mainly because he wanted his children to get a good education. When each learned the other’s reasons for their positions, they could build on shared values, respect each other, and work together.
I see these columns as a welcome addition to the example-setting being made by the North Carolina Leadership Forum at Duke University. As John Hood, who is also a co-founder, wrote recently:
Dr. Vincent Price, now president of Duke University, has spent much of his scholarly career studying these issues. In one 2002 paper, he and his co-authors found that exposure to political disagreement helps people not just come up with more and better reasons for their own views but also helps them understand why other people might reasonably come to a different conclusion.
Interestingly, this effect occurred when people were actually talking across the political divide with acquaintances. It didn’t come from exposure to the news media, where the one-sided screeds and shouting matches were already crowding out more substantive fare.
Coincidentally, it was at Duke, but before Price’s arrival last year, that my colleagues and I founded the North Carolina Leadership Forum, which brings people from across the political spectrum together each year for precisely the kinds of conversations — respectful but spirited — that seem to bear the most fruit.
Our goal isn’t unanimity. People disagree. In fact, a lack of substantive disagreement — within an organization, a profession, or a government — can itself be a sign of trouble, evidence that the group may not be perceiving, understanding, and carefully vetting all its options.
In our view, the proper course is neither to engage in wishful thinking nor to encourage groupthink. It is to treat others with the respect they are due as fellow human beings. In my case, this means that I should assume you have good reasons for what you believe, and vice versa.
If we disagree, I should hope to persuade you, yes. But I should also be open to having my own mind changed. Even if persuasion never occurs, I should hope to have you finish my column having learned something new — a fact, an argument, a way of thinking — that you will appreciate knowing even as you continue to disagree with my conclusions.
Differences of opinion — ideas in conflict — are not anomalies to be stomped out in brute outrage. Rather they are to be valued because competition leads to innovations. Competition in the marketplace of ideas means finding manifold better ways to improve society.
Keeping politics in its proper perspective also improves society in the meantime, by making it a pleasanter place for all of us. But we have to push toward that goal, together, and the more contributing to that push, the better.