Yes, we live in outrageous times. But we also live in a time when there is cachet in being the most outraged, kudos to being the most highly angered and offended, and eminence in being the most exceptionally shocked and appalled. When the rewards for dialing up the emotional level are high, other discourse can be drowned out. This blog, in its own small way, tries to model the virtues of civil discourse.

I was moved to consider this point when I ran across a comment from the prominent literary critic Lionel Trilling in a 1951 letter to his former student Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz had reviewed a book by Trilling, and in the course of an overall positive review raised concerns that the Trilling\’s exposition was perhaps not confrontational enough. Trilling responded in this way (the quotation is from Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling, edited by Adam Kirsch, 2018, p. 193):

What I would have said about my own prose is that there is a need for a tone of reasonableness and demonstration, that it was of the greatest importance that we learn to consider that the tone of civil life has its necessity and may even have its heroic quality, that we must have a modification of all that is implied by the fierce posture of modern literature.

However, Trilling also expressed a fear that rises in the hearts of all of us who attempt to be civil–that our attempts at a kind of clarity and civility could mean that people just don\’t understand when or how we are disagreeing with them. Trilling continues:

I still think this … But with the arrival in the last few days of some of the English reviews of my book, I have come to feel that my tone isn\’t what I had thought or meant it to be. I have always supposed it had more intensity, irony, and acerbity than the English have been finding in it, and several remarks about its \”gentleness\” have disturbed me, for I don\’t think I am gentle in my intellectual judgments, and don\’t want to be. Possibly the British response is to my willingness to forgive the writer while condemning the idea, but I must also suppose there is something in the style itself–that something is there that I did not mean to be there, or something not there that I meant to be. 

To be clear, a civil tone doesn\’t mean avoiding disagreement. It doesn\’t mean go-along-to-get-along. It doesn\’t mean squishiness. It doesn\’t mean a belief that all discussions should be robotic or \”just-the-facts.\” It means a dose of earnestness about trying to convey one\’s own beliefs, and a dose of humility when confronted by differing beliefs of others.

It does mean not rising too quickly when the easy bait of anger and outrage is proffered. It means trying to make allowances for those who give in to excess, because none of us is perfect, but also not feeding or amplifying that excess, and indeed trying to tamp it down. It means that politeness will be the first and second and probably the third response to disagreements, and even in the cases where politeness must needs be abandoned, a cold, explicit, and angry disagreement can be followed by disengagement, rather than feeding the fire of disagreement for its own sake. 
Those who forsake a civil tone may find that later, when they wish to call on others for sober reflection or careful thought, they have done injury to this form of discourse. If and when they later wish to appeal for a civil discussion, it may no longer be available to them. When tempted to say that you find it impossible to disagree on certain subjects in a civil manner, it may be useful to ask oneself about whether you wish to encourage a society in which conversations will be ruled by those who can emote the loudest, longest, and hardest. 
Most people demonstrate a capacity for civil disagreement in many areas of their lives: family, friends, work, institutions of worship, clubs, local government, and others. In my own experience, there is often a kind of performative dishonesty and group-signalling that occurs when conversations disintegrate into passionate incivility.  What I have in mind here is similar to the sentiment that James Madison expressed in Federalist #50, when he wrote:

Throughout the continuance of the council, it was split into two fixed and violent parties. The fact is acknowledged and lamented by themselves. Had this not been the case, the face of their proceedings exhibits a proof equally satisfactory. In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on the opposite columns. Every unbiased observer may infer, without danger of mistake, and at the same time without meaning to reflect on either party, or any individuals of either party, that, unfortunately, passion, not reason, must have presided over their decisions. When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.

If someone\’s passion always aligns them with the same group, it seems to me a tell-tale sign that their membership in the group has become so important that they fear the possibility of being seen to disagree with the group more than they desire to think their own thoughts. In that way, the disciplline of civility offers a kind of personal freedom both to oneself and others. 

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