Let’s Be Civil: Scott F. Aikin & Robert B. Talisse

We must be civil.  If we here at ILYBYGTH hope to understand Fundamentalist America from the outside, it is not optional.  The purpose of ILYBYGTH is to imagine the best reasons for conservative ideas on evolution, religion, education, etc.  Without civility, this turns into another useless and bitter witchhunt.

But what does it mean to be civil?  Philosophers Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse of Vanderbilt offer a compelling short definition of true civility.  In a piece on 3 Quarks Daily, the two philosophers argue for a more precise and healthy definition of civil argument.  “We now are able,” Aikin and Talisse say in part,

“[to] identify civility in argument with tendencies that enable the exchange of reasons among disputants. Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons.  This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views.  For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism.  In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of.  We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception,and Reciprocity.”

And they conclude:

“Thus we see that civility in argument is not a matter of being nice, calm, or even polite.  It instead has to do with being a sincere arguer.  Civility is consistent with sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality that would in other contexts be inappropriate.  But our model of civility also holds that name-calling, impoliteness, and hostility are to be avoided when they would obstruct or undermine properly run argument.”

For those of us who try to engage with those with whom we don’t agree or don’t even understand, this definition will help define the parameters of civil discourse.  It is a reminder that we must not abandon our own positions in order to respect the other.  Such wallpapering is not true civility, but rather only a stalling maneuver.  This definition also frees us to be angry, so long as we understand that anger is a feeling, not an argument or strategy.  True civility, in my opinion, is like parents arguing in that quiet time when a baby has just fallen asleep after a long stretch of midnight crying.  Both parents can be angry.  Both can point fingers and accuse the other of sloth.  But both parents also implicitly–automatically–keep their voices down to a hushed whisper.  Though they may have a ferocious argument, they both agree not to wake the baby.

Can people really do this?  There often does not seem to be any agreement to keep argument civil.  Culture warriors break this implicit code all the time, engaging in violence or accusing one another of inciting violence.

But there is hope.  Political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that the “culture-wars” are not truly as vicious as they are made out to be.  Scholars such as Jonathan Haidt insist that there are moral positions on both sides of many hot-button issues.  And activists such as John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher have committed to talking civilly with one another, sometmes with “sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality.”

So let’s be civil.  When we disagree, let’s remember to try to understand the other side.  Let’s listen to one another.  Let’s give reasons that might make sense to the other side.  And let’s agree to be open to changing our ideas.  A tall order, but a necessary one.

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