The Common Good

Civility and a Hermeneutic of Generosity

We live in an increasingly partisan world. This is not news. But it's the news "business," in many ways, that has made it so.

Broadcasters on TV, radio, and the internet cast broad caricatures, distortions, and sensationalized half-truths to their followers -- their insatiable fans who generally tune in or log on to hear confirmed what they already believe about this or that news story, this or that person in the spotlight.

Of course there's no such thing as complete neutrality (in news or anything else) -- we all see, hear, understand, and interpret from "somewhere." But the hyper-partisanship of much of corporate media, whose ultimate (only?) goal is ever-higher ratings and revenues, has created a culture of suspicion and irrational fear. Reasoned debate has been replaced by ridicule and contempt -- sarcastic one -- liners that seek a laugh while also trying to diminish the other's humanity. Again, none of this is new(s).

Even among people of faith, partisan politics increasingly determines -- and often destroys -- associations and affiliations. Where "unconditional election" might once have severed the friendship of a die-hard Calvinist and a committed Methodist, now differences over health care or immigration -- made intractable by the polarizing tutelage of Glenn Beck on one side and Keith Olbermann on the other -- turn Catholic against Catholic, Baptist against Baptist, and on and on.

Calls for civility seem like a good idea in times like these. But civility, I fear, isn't up to the task. Its other name -- politeness -- reminds us that it alone cannot bear the burden of what it's asked to do in and for a deeply divided populace -- either at the level of public debate or personal exchanges.

People who maintain long-term friendships with those whom they strenuously disagree with are usually possessed of a repertoire of skills and habits that make such relationships possible, that in fact govern their lives in their totality. They are innately curious about the world and other people -- the kind of curiosity that is, as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre says, a form of compassion.

They are also truth-tellers. They recognize that genuine friendship is only possible when the parties involved refuse to lie to one another. This is why civility isn't usually up to the job: to be civil or polite is often to avoid honesty; it is niceness without moral seriousness, tact without truth.

In his 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Pulitzer prize-winning author, Tracy Kidder, tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, "the man who would cure the world." Farmer is a Harvard-trained infectious diseases specialist who has devoted his life to treating the poor in places like Haiti, Peru, Russia, and Rwanda.

The surface biography of Farmer, who is increasingly well-known thanks to Kidder and to media coverage of Haiti's recent earthquake, can make him seem saintly and noble; but Mountains Beyond Mountains, like any great biography, reveals the complexities of its subject -- his maniacal ambition and his sheer goofiness; his inclination to moralize and his extraordinary capacity for forgiveness.

Farmer was a lapsed Catholic who encountered liberation theology as he began his work with the poor of Haiti. He's not especially polite: "You want to talk crucifixion? I'll show you crucifixion, you bastards." He's deeply curious about everything and everyone he meets. And he speaks the truth -- even when it is inconvenient or embarrassing.

But what sums up Farmer's approach to negotiating the difficulties of global health and the persons with whom he may have profound disagreements is something he calls the hermeneutic of generosity: interpreting what others say or intend in a favorable light. This is not naivete or wishful thinking; if one's message or motives turn out to be not so honorable, truth-telling requires they be exposed.

The H of G (Farmer's shorthand way to refer to this practice) names an interpretive stance -- which presupposes (and sharpens) a range of skills and habits -- that could go a long way in shaping arguments about health care or immigration or a host of other pressing issues.

TV's talking heads have a stake in keeping us alienated from one another, as do many politicians who have learned from the media to trade in fear-mongering and melodrama. But their ways don't have be mimicked. Moving beyond mere civility we can "read" our interlocutors generously, not disdainfully, even as we seek always to know and speak the truth.

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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