Uncivil discourse

In an apparent bid to add an erudite contribution to our public discourse, Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown law student … Continued

In an apparent bid to add an erudite contribution to our public discourse, Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying before Congress in favor of the Obama administration’s mandate that employers cover contraception in their health insurance plans.

After a considerable public outcry, a number of sponsors have abandoned Limbaugh, causing him to issue what resembled a public apology. But Limbaugh also heard more than a few “amens” from people who considered difference of opinion a sufficient justification for publicly defaming the young woman.

Maybe I’m expecting way too much from talk radio, but don’t we deserve better from our public discourse?

At the heart of this debate over contraception is a conflict between religious rights and social obligation — one we’ve had to navigate numerous times in our nation’s history.

It’s never been easy for us to determine the boundaries between individual right to unencumbered belief and competing responsibility to civic need. But it certainly doesn’t help us work through the difficulties when pundits resort to name-calling and complexities are dissolved into bumper-sticker sound bites.

To talk carefully about this tough issue requires that we take seriously the claim from some Catholics that a requirement to finance contraception represents a fundamental violation of convictions about when life begins and what makes sex a moral good. Yet we also need to take just as seriously the moral value that others place on the right of access to basic health services, and the public good that comes from including contraception in our definition of basic health care.

This isn’t a contest between moral values and sexual libertinism any more than it’s a competition between freedom and theocracy; those options are misleadingly tidy. In reality, this debate is a disagreement over what moral values ought to get our priority. Talking about values is messy and complicated but vital for an ethical society.

Given what’s at stake, wouldn’t it be nice if we could talk about these issues with some civility? Civility means the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree.

Civility does not require us to retreat from our convictions, but it does ask us to engage people who disagree with us and truly listen to what they have to say. It asks us to consider modestly the ways our own perspectives might be shortsighted, misinformed or hurtful. Above all, it demands that we express our convictions without demonizing those who hold other views.

American politics is now almost devoid of civility, and many of us think the vitriol is hurting our national community. As a Christian, I recognize that my own religious tradition is often the source of that incivility. But I also think Christianity — and many other religions — can help America move toward healthier disagreement. After all, the virtues of civility — patience, integrity, humility and respect — are theological values, too. Christians would call them the “fruits of the spirit,” and when applied to our public conversations, they can infuse those conversations with grace.

Though a quick read of the news suggests we’ve reached new lows of incivility in American culture, there are glimmers of hope, and some of those rays come from religious communities.

For instance, friends of mine in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are launching what they’re calling a Respectful Dialogue Initiative, where they will train lay people in the skills of civil conversation. The hope is that the participants will take those skills back to their local communities, share them and exponentially increase the demand for civility in our politics. While religion sometimes is at the heart of our most entrenched conflicts, efforts like this show that religion can cultivate virtues that lend themselves to an infusion of respect in our public life.

Commitment to civility doesn’t promise an easy fix; conflict and disagreement don’t simply go away when we adopt the virtues of civil conversation. But civility does offer healthier terms on which to explore our differences and identify common ground.

Given what we heard on the talk radio, changing the tone of the conversation is long overdue.

(James Calvin Davis is a professor at Middlebury College and author of “In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us.” A version of this commentary previously appeared in the Albany Times Union.)

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  • WmarkW

    This article’s bilateralism about the problem is useful step. On Faith recently ran a column about the politics of division, citing only conservative/Republican examples of it. Meanwhile, the latter’s positions are routinely characterized here as a “War on Women” or opposition to gay marriage is simply “bigotry.”

    The left decries the use of labels, except when they can put opponents into politically useful categories.

  • TopTurtle

    There’s a qualitative difference between labels like the war on women and bigotry and labels like socialist and Muslim for Obama. The latter are lies. That’s not to say that the left doesn’t lie, but the volume and extravagance of the lies is much smaller.

  • TopTurtle

    At least part of the reason it’s difficult to have rational discourse these days is that many political actors have realized that dissemination of misinformation is more effective than argumentation. For example, we can’t rationally debate health care reform when folks on the right are screaming about death panels.