Civility and the Possibility of Community

At the risk of repeating what I have already said about community and about politics, in this season of political bickering I wish to reiterate a few principles. I do this because I am centrally interested in the meaning of community, and I have always believed that community is not possible without the foundational practice of forbearance and charity. I have also been inspired recently by two speeches, one by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who spoke last week at a regional conference in Utah County and the other by Tom Griffith, a federal judge on the US Court of Appeals in D.C. and, I am proud to say, a graduate of the department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature at BYU where I now serve as chair. His speech on the BYU campus can be seen here

I won’t pretend to weigh in on the question of whether or not civility was more common in earlier periods of our history. I don’t consider that to be a question of great importance, even if it is a subject of interest. And I am not so much concerned with the rhetoric that goes back and forth in political campaigns. What concerns me is the flippancy and superficiality of the political rhetoric—usually devoid of any context or substance to allow for any kind of serious analysis—that gets tossed back and forth with such ease on talk radio, cable news, the internet, and that also gets passed along through email, facebook posts, and offhanded comments. Tom Griffith warned BYU students:

“Harold McMillan — Prime Minister of Great Britain and chancellor of Oxford University from 1960 to 1986 — described the primary purpose of a university education to the graduating class at Oxford: ‘Nothing you learn here at Oxford will be of the slightest possible use to you later, save only this: that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.’ If your education at BYU hasn’t helped you see that such partisan talk is ‘rot,’ then you have failed in your studies. And I’m not kidding.”

I have found that it is especially hard for students to separate the “rot” from true wisdom when many of their role models—their parents, political heroes, community leaders—are themselves spinners of much frantic and overblown rhetoric. Milton warned centuries ago about censorious tendencies that can bury nuggets of wisdom so deeply that it can then take generations to undo the damage. I feel sorry for students who seem afraid to come into contact with new ideas for no other reason than because it would disappoint someone they care about. President Monson has wisely said that we should never let a problem that needs solving be more important than a person who needs love. It is probably also true, however, that we should never allow a relationship with someone we love dictate how and what we think. Christ made that very apparent. If we are to be true Christians, we must, to use the words of Mormon, “lay hold of every good thing;” we must be as serious about embracing good ideas as identifying bad ones regardless of the wishes of others. I can think of a few examples, alluded to indirectly by Elder Oaks in his speech, of false folk beliefs that emerged in the LDS culture over time that were based more on prejudice and probably loyalty to family and individual role models than in doctrine and that take a great deal of time, expense, and struggle before they can be eradicated.

Of course, it is much easier to detect “rot” when it is spoken by your political opponents or when it attempts to attack your community and your interests.  And therein lies the rub. What is the secret to an education that can empower us to be able to discern rot not only across the aisle but among our own like-minded circles or, even more importantly, in our own thinking? It has something to do with the profound lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We must recognize what we lack. Every great musician plays wrong notes. Every great athlete fumbles and stumbles. And every great thinker is capable of being terribly wrong. Griffith cites Oliver Cromwell on this point: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ; think that ye might be mistaken.” Probably no contemporary authors have written more eloquently on this question than Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry. Their point seems to be that the function of Christian belief is not merely to shore up confidence about moral principles and transcendent truths but also to accept the challenge that in our earnest devotion to and defense of them we might, at times, betray them. This shouldn’t surprise us. This is a story as old as the gospel itself. To be Christian, to have Christian faith requires a willingness to engage in self-doubt. As I heard one particularly insightful speaker say at the recent meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, what is even more important than obedience to and knowledge of the law is to be devoted to repentance.

Some of us by disposition are more easily angered by politics (or by anything for that matter), but, personality aside, incivility is often grounded in a worldview that is Manichean. It is us against them. Good versus evil. The right versus the wrong. (I am reminded of the comedian Steven Wright’s comment that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t!) Forgive the pun, but there are two problems with such worldviews. We might mistakenly assume we are in the right. And we might mistakenly assume we aren’t. The serious point is that if we see the world divided, we will tend to see differences as categorically threatening the very fabric and foundation of our community when they might have saved us from ourselves.

Both Elder Oaks and Tom Griffith pleaded that we not perceive our political opponents as enemies but as friends. I know the left is guilty of demonization—particularly of religious and rural communities—and I have often felt the sting of such demonization. Were I still living in Berkeley, I might write a slightly different post than this one. But I live in the heartland of Mormon conservatism and around here it is common to hear people on the right talk as if the very foundation of America were crumbling before our eyes, that we are facing a decision between two presidential candidates that will either restore America to its divine promise or throw us into ever greater realms of darkness. And for conservative Mormons there is an additional layer of temptation to see this as a choice between a man who will receive direct instructions from the Lord and one who will only be guided by the faulty wisdom of men. It’s easy to see why such a view is a temptation. Mormons believe in the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost, given to us through priesthood authority, but this has never meant, as far as I am aware, that men and women of good will, of any faith or of no faith at all, cannot do God’s work, let alone do it more effectively than many or most Mormons. Elder Todd D. Christopherson, in the most recent worldwide training for church leaders, encouraged collaboration with people of good will, wherever they may be. We are stronger, in other words, when we are not going it alone. To engage in such reductive thinking about the differences between Romney and Obama simplifies inspiration to such a degree as to make a mockery of what revelation entails—lots of study, listening to various opinions, and the bringing of our best judgments to the Lord in humility for guidance, with a willingness to be corrected. Let alone, of course, the broader question of God’s hidden purposes in the direction of history (emphasis on hidden). I have no reason to believe that Romney would forsake the need to listen to the wisdom of his cabinet or others before making a decision, nor do I have any reason to believe that Obama is averse to prayer. I remember my conservative Mormon friends telling me all the way back in 1984 that they were going to vote for Reagan for no more reason than because they knew he prayed. I had no reason to doubt he did. But Mondale was the son of a minister and Reagan was an actor and our first divorced president, so if you wanted to use such a litmus test, which of course I did not, it seemed it ought to be applied at least less selectively. And if my own limited experience with prayer is any indication, the Lord seems to welcome my prayers on behalf of all aspects of my life but he rarely intervenes to tell me what to do about the details and instead seems to place greatest emphasis on my need to stay in touch, learn to do my best, and be guided by the best lights I can find.

These speculations and assumptions about revelation in the end only serve to obfuscate the real problem that we, as citizens of a democracy, have abdicated our responsibility to be informed, judicious, open to a wide range of opinions and information, and willing to adapt our views as circumstances evolve. It is hard work to be a citizen. It means reading and listening a lot. And I don’t mean a lot from the same source, over and over again, just because it confirms our previously held opinions or because it provides good zingers and sound bites. I mean that we should read, in Milton’s term, “promiscuously,” searching out beyond the comfort of our own familiar thinking and our nearest and most intimate circle of like-minded people. It means having the courage to talk to and be friends with people who have different views than our own. And above all, such an approach to democracy requires not just tepid tolerance of difference but a profound understanding that the best policies are found through broad exposure to and experimentation with a plurality of ideas. We should be in the practice of having a broad community in our own lives and in our own thinking, in other words, if we are to be useful in the project of making a community of this great nation.

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