Just Say No to Civility

David FrenchThe teacher was known for his inflammatory statements and actions. "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth," he said. "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," he once said—a statement that set the blogging world aflame. He was called irresponsible, and some accused him of inciting violence. Revolution was in the air, and talk of swords could be the spark that started the brushfire. Others called the teacher a hypocrite. Wasn't this the same person who urged us all, if we are slapped, to turn the other cheek?

But the teacher did not back down. In a fiery speech, he condemned the ruling class, saying, "You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear outwardly beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness."

Leading pundits lamented the decline in cultural discourse. "Civility is at an all-time low," observed a columnist in the Paper of Record. "It was not long ago we could argue about policy during work hours, then go enjoy a steak dinner together that evening. It was business, not personal. But this death imagery? It's dangerous."

No one was surprised when the teacher finally snapped. At first, the news ticker read simply, "Prominent rabbi attacks local vendors in Temple courtyard." Minutes later, cameras were on-scene. "I don't know what happened," said one slightly bruised and obviously shaken dove-seller. "I'm doing my normal work, then this guy flips my table over and says something about me being a thief. It was really pretty scary. I kept waiting for him to pull out a sword or something. You know how things are these days . . . all this ‘uprising' talk."

The teacher was ultimately executed by the civil authorities, possibly for sedition. Popular at first, but discredited—no doubt in part by his own extreme rhetoric and actions—he was left with few, if any, supporters. He seemed to have a knack for disappointing his followers and enraging the powerful.

Indeed, the tiny band of cultists he left behind took up his same tactics, with the most prominent (who called himself an "Apostle") even saying of his fellow citizens, "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips." Government officials would not respond on the record to the alleged Apostle's comments for fear of giving his remarks an even larger platform, but one did say, without attribution, that "The so-called apostle's extremist and divisive rhetoric has no place in our public discourse."

Sometimes, the truth is not civil. Sometimes, our consciences need to be shocked, and those who occupy the halls of power should be directly challenged. There is injustice in this world—including deadly injustice—and it is a simple fact that civil disagreement is quite often the easiest form of dissent to handle, the easiest to disregard.

Civil disagreements are rarely unpleasant to experience, tend not to motivate more than a few people, and often even fail to fully communicate reality. If the reality of partial-birth abortion includes crushing skulls and vacuuming out brain matter, is that a truth that can even be communicated civilly? After all, some people get agitated when they even hear the words, "partial-birth abortion," preferring of course the more civil "intact dilation and extraction."

The power of civic anger has been amply demonstrated in the last ten days, and not by the deranged actions of Jared Loughner. We know that he didn't pay much attention to political discourse and instead was plagued by a host of mental demons all his own.

Instead we know that civic anger is powerful through the desperate—dare I say uncivil—efforts of much of the professional Left to use Loughner's crime to silence their critics. We know civic anger is powerful through the historic results of the 2010 elections, when a political tsunami hit all levels of American politics. But we also know that anger can sometimes backfire and that it can often be misplaced.

Civility isn't always virtuous, but neither is incivility, and neither is anger. Context matters. Was Jesus wrong to be uncivil?

There is a vast and yawning gulf between alleged incivility (which often lies in the eye of the beholder) and violence. And if I am given the choice to live in a land where civility eclipses justice and truth as the goal of civic and professional life, then I choose the argument. I choose the fight. I choose a robust marketplace of ideas.

I choose America.