Mad props to Michael Gerson, who in today’s Washington Post brilliantly articulates the concept I was struggling to develop in my recent post, “Don’t Blame Me for Rush Limbaugh, I Won’t Blame You for Michael Moore.” (Disclosure: Gerson did not actually consult with me, and may not have realized he was writing this on my behalf.)
The practice of civility is important to democracy. In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, Stephen L. Carter defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together. . . . We should make sacrifices for others not simply because doing so makes social life easier (although it does), but as a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God.”
Respect makes cooperation for the common good possible. Civility acts like grease in the democratic machine; disdain is sand thrown into the gears. But civility is also a direct reflection of our belief in human equality. Even people we vehemently disagree with on the largest issues possess a democratic value equal to our own. Carter argues that this recognition does not preclude “passionate disagreement,” but it does require “civil listening” — and I’d guess it forbids hoping for the death of political opponents.
There’s an old platitude, “I may not agree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it.” That rings slightly false — although I would verbally defend your right to disagree with me, if there’s a realistic prospect of death, you’re probably on your own. But surely all of us would be better off if more people treated opposing ideas with some level of respect.