Civil Discourse, Civility, and Due Doubt

Arnold Kling’s illuminating critique of the status of civil discourse and the nefarious effects of demonization and tribalism in America raises concerns that matter to all thoughtful Americans. I support Kling’s basic thesis and have some thoughts that complement and somewhat complicate his piece for Cato Unbound. Let me begin by elaborating upon his empirical analysis before turning to the important normative questions at stake.

Empirical Aspects of the Decline of Civil Discourse

Each of us knows of examples of incivility and demonization in public life, the sphere with which Kling is most concerned. He cites examples on both the right and the left, including the hegemonic reaction to Lawrence Summers’s thought experiment on gender, genetics, and aptitudes for math, and President Trump’s endless streams of divisive rhetoric. (In many cases, the Resistance to Trump hasn’t behaved much better.) Alas, the problem also takes place in the shadows of the public realm. Growing numbers of citizens are now targeted by anonymous online and social media intimidation and threats for things they say in politics, public and private discussions, classrooms, and other domains, leading to a reluctance of many people to honestly speak their minds.

Just last week, several women Members of Parliament announced that they would not stand for reelection in the upcoming British election due to personalized intimidations and threats inflicted on them via social media because of their positions on Brexit. Why labor at persuasion when all you have to do is threaten opponents via anonymous emails?

Like the “spirit of faction,” which James Madison claimed is “sown in the nature of man,” demonization and tribalism are woven into human nature, as Kling wisely acknowledges. Such realism teaches us that factious and vitriolic rhetoric has always been a part of interpersonal life and politics. There is no perfect Golden Age. Like so many complex things, we are talking about a matter of degree across a continuum. Have we crossed a rhetorical Rubicon, creating a qualitative difference?

Madison also knew that it is the task of civil order to restrain these forces and to sublimate our darker passions into the virtue of constructive conflict—but in a manner that does not undermine liberty. Civil order encompasses the institutions, private and local associations, manners, and other subtle “forms of liberty” that Tocqueville wrote about. It also includes liberal and civic education, which appear to be endangered species today for a host of reasons. The problem now is that social media, coupled with the weakening of civil institutions and other phenomena Kling stresses, provides a plethora of new opportunities for the venting of the human, all too human, inner forces of tribalism and demonization, liberating these passions from the technological limits and cultural restraints that once held them more at bay.

Kling also points an accusing finger at what Bill Bishop calls the “big sort,” which entails people limiting their intercourse to like-minded others, even to the extent of influencing where they choose to live. The less actual contact we have with those with whom we disagree, the more likely we are to demonize them. My former Madison political science colleague Diana Mutz has found that citizens without college degrees are more likely to associate with people with whom they disagree than are college graduates. Mutz’s finding does not exactly bolster higher education’s classic claim that it exists to expand the minds of its recipients.

As for most major social problems, the causes of demonization are complex, defying perfect comprehension. I bring just one more cause to our attention, a factor that complicates the analysis: the rise of what social theorist Frank Furedi labeled “emotional correctness” in his book What’s Happened to the University? Furedi maintains that a governing purpose of higher education today is to protect the emotional comfort of students and others, regardless of how subjective and unreasonable the claim for comfort might be. The ubiquity of campus identity politics helps to fuel this process. If one feels offended or harassed, that is sufficient to justify the claim and to seek remedial action regardless of any contrary reasoned external judgment. Furedi’s concept is a recent variant of what Philip Rieff christened “the triumph of the therapeutic” in his classic 1966 book of that name.

Paired with the way in which the traditional distinction between speech and action has been blurred in recent times, emotional correctness provides a rationale for improper censorship and the demonization of speech that lies outside one’s comfort zone. Because the therapeutic ethic accentuates personal psychology, its rise contributes to the problem of personalizing disagreement. (Recall the 1960’s refrain: “the personal is the political.”)

The Title IX case brought against Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis, in which she was accused of harassment for simply publishing an op-ed on campus sexual paranoia, is but one prominent example of this speech-stifling trend.

So, we are confronted with a tension. On the one hand, as seen above, the fruition of civil discourse is dependent upon practicing due concern for the personhood and well-being of others. On the other hand, Furedi’s understanding raises a counter problem: how too much concern for sensitivity and emotional comfort can also harm discourse. As Jonathan Rauch demonstrated so well in Kindly Inquisitors, the pursuit of truth suffocates if we are afraid to offend at all costs.

Emotional correctness can even engender another form of demonization: of free speech and the First Amendment. During a heated campus-wide debate over free speech policy at Williams College last year, for example, a leading activist group essentially accused free speech of attempted murder, claiming that “absolute free speech is killing us.”

Civility, Chutzpah, Due Doubt, and Democratic Character

A few years ago, the UW-Madison dean of students office and I published a primer for students that discussed the essentiality of academic free speech and the importance of fostering the qualities of character needed to sustain and further this freedom. In addition to stressing the crucial need to depersonalize disagreement except in extreme cases—our language echoed that of Professor Kling—the primer emphasized such character attributes as the personal strength to handle the rigors of vibrant and challenging discourse; the willingness and courage to speak one’s truths despite pressures to conform (a form of chutzpah, if you will); due tolerance of disagreement; and what I now term “due doubt” about the ultimate merit of one’s own positions.

Note that the list of personal attributes is nuanced and even paradoxical in a way that reflects the tensions that naturally exist in a free society that honors individual rights and the differences that naturally attend cultural and political pluralism. Political theorist Isaiah Berlin termed such tensions “discontinuities” of human nature and political life. He maintained that properly honoring discontinuity is necessary for political wisdom and good policy.

Harboring chutzpah and due doubt is not easy—a truth that also means that sustaining liberal democracy is not easy. But the ability to do so lies at the heart of what Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes called our “experiment” in democracy in his classic First Amendment dissent in Abrams v. U.S., the 1919 opinion that planted the seeds that would become modern First Amendment jurisprudence a half-century later. Holmes championed the right to speak one’s mind with passion and courage but also warned of the danger of allowing one’s “fighting faith” to blind one to the rights of others and to the fact that one could be wrong. In a meaningful sense, Holmes sought to wed our moral passions to thoughtfulness—to tame what Aeschylus called the “moral furies.” He sought to honor both chutzpah and due doubt. Protecting what Holmes in another case termed “the speech we hate” is the tribute that moralism must pay to thoughtfulness, freedom, and equal rights.

We have heard much talk in recent times about the need to reestablish “civility.” But our understanding of civility has been watered down in our age of emotional correctness in a manner that threatens to harm the freedom side of ordered liberty. Campus “civility” codes have even become tools for censorship. We should resurrect a more traditional conception of civility that disavows the personalization of intellectual conflict—as Professor Kling propitiously advocates—while also underscoring the toughness of character that is necessary to sustain the often-painful pursuit of truth and self-knowledge.

Deriving from the Old French civilite and Latin civilitas, the older conception of civility pertained to attributes of citizens who share a common concern for the polity despite their differences, and who relate with each other from the vantage of their demanding roles and duties as citizens, not as individuals defined by their emotional needs. In assuming the role of “citizen,” one assumes a persona, or mask, that protects one from feeling personally assaulted by others, thereby enabling the interactional conflict and “verbal cacophony” that the Supreme Court has held to be a cornerstone of free speech in a constitutional republic. Think of how members of Congress go after one another after first addressing each other by reference to their political personas, as “the Senator from X,” or “the Congresswoman from Y.”

Getting to this point is a task for liberal and civic education. Are we up to the task?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Arnold Kling has devoted years to observing and participating in American political discourse. Such as it is. He writes that all too often, Americans seek to demonize those with whom they disagree, rather than trying first to understand what they are saying in their own terms. Social media does not help us to do better, he argues, but one thing that could is surprisingly simple: “If you think that the problem with political discourse is caused entirely by the other side,” he writes, “then look in the mirror instead.”

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Rauch offers a “friendly amendment” to Arnold Kling’s argument: We must amend our weakening civic institutions. He recommends direct social action, including but not limited to various organizations that seek to start conversation across political divides; strengthening institutions that don’t line up neatly with partisan politics, but that serve good purposes anyway; and—perhaps controversially—re-engineering our social media environment.

  • Nikki Usher turns her attention to American journalism, which often sets the tone for our political conversations. She finds that with the decline of local journalism, journalists have an increasingly cohesive and uniform view—one that sees itself as cosmopolitan, but that is really parochial to Washington, DC. Journalists nowadays often stumble in covering other areas of the country, which increases the importance of Arnold Kling’s populist/cosmopolitan divide.

  • Donald Downs considers that free speech requires a concern for the personhood and well-being of others—and the concern to avoid offense can also be stifling. He characterizes this as a tension between chutzpah and “due doubt” of one’s own beliefs, and he argues for the importance of civility understood in a special way: Civility is not mere politeness in politics, he argues; it is a key part of the role that we must all play as citizens, regardless of political disagreements.