Sometimes We Cannot Be Civil. But I Can.

Thanks to commenter Giliell, whose comment on this post inspired me, to Dan Fincke for much writing on this topic, and to Ethan, for discussing these issues with me last night.

I am for civil discussion. I oppose the use of demeaning language and rhetoric in every situation, against every foe. I believe that we must hold the humanity of the other in mind even if we passionately disagree with them, and seek to engage with each other as equals in dignity and respect even as we battle over our deepest values.

But.

Sometimes we cannot be civil. If you say to me that I am not entitled to the full respect of the law, to full equality as a citizen, we cannot have a civil discussion. If you claim that you have rights that I do not, we cannot have a respectful disagreement. Whatever language you use, however sweet your tone, we are no longer engaged in civil discourse. 

Your very views demean me.

There is no respectful way to say “You are not a person.” There is no way to assert my dignity and my inequality. You cannot be civil and hold that, in civil society, I should be considered as something less than you. So we cannot have a civil discussion.

Yet.

Though you do not recognize my full humanity, I will strive to honor yours. However small you see me to be, I will work to be that much bigger. Because, ultimately, I care not only for my own liberation but for yours as well, and I long for the day when we can stand together as equals not only in my mind but in yours too.

So.

If you say I cannot vote, cannot make my own decisions, cannot do the same jobs, cannot marry the one I love, cannot wear what I please and think what I like, then we cannot be civil. Yet I will be civil, even when we cannot.

Our humanity demands it.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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