Civility

The Urgency of Civility

The call from the member of Congress was almost desperate. This veteran representative lamented how divisive and hateful the political rhetoric in our nation’s capital has become. Never, in the decades this member has served, has it been this bad. Political opponents are no longer just other public servants with whom we might disagree on various matters; they are now evil people who regularly lie and who desire the worst for the American people.

Every day on talk radio, cable news channels, and in the blogosphere, the political opponents of the media screamers are vilified and attacked in the most vicious ways, with the kind of language you teach your children not to use about others: “Liars,” “Nazis,” Democrats who want a “government takeover,” Republicans who want their fellow Americans to “die quickly,” “enemies of America,” “unpatriotic” if they disagree with you on foreign policy, “un-Christian” if they don’t agree with your morality, and either “baby killers” or “misogynists” or “fundamentalist extremists” or “God-haters,” depending on which side of the debates they’re on. And now, with the first black president, the edge of racism in some of the most hateful comments is evident, either subtly or not so subtly.

The other day a friend, a principled conservative, expressed his genuine worry about the growing number of people who get most of their information from singular news sources that simply bolster their predisposed ideological viewpoint. The stridency of cable TV and the Internet retrench us in our preconceived perspectives, and then ratchet up the public passions and attack the other side as horrible people who don’t share any of “our” values.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2009
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Doing Justice

Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel is used to playing to large crowds—his undergraduate course on justice enrolls more than 1,000 students each year. He has since turned the course into a book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? as well as a new PBS series. He spoke with Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis about the importance of moral discourse in today’s public square.

Jim Wallis: Why is there so little civility in public discourse today?

Michael Sandel: The reason for the breakdown in civil discourse is not that we have too much moral argument in politics, but that we have too little. What we really have are ideological food fights—assertions hurled back and forth on cable news television programs, radio talk shows, and on the floor of Congress. What we don’t have is a serious engagement with the competing moral and spiritual convictions that citizens bring to public life. We tend to shy away from that, for fear that engaging with these fiercely held convictions about moral and spiritual questions would just be a recipe for hopeless disagreement. But by failing to engage with the deepest sources of people’s convictions in the public arena, we empty it out.

What have you learned through teaching about how to bring back moral discourse?

The students can argue with each other, me, and the philosophers because there is a structure of respectful, reasoned argument. It’s very powerful, and it’s exciting, in part because students realize that this is a journey—political philosophy done this way is a journey in self-understanding. There’s a great hunger among students, and also among citizens, to figure out what we believe and why.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2009
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