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.


Are Culture War Activists MORE Likely to Read from the Other Side?

It has become a tired cliche that our society has grown more culturally segregated due to the fact that we only read/see/hear those ideologically driven news outlets with which we already agree.  An interesting piece in this morning’s New York Times describes a study of media consumership that challenges that common wisdom.  According to a study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, people who read/view/listen to news and information from one side of the political spectrum are MORE likely to also read/view/listen to sources from the other side.

“Internet news consumers with homogeneous news diets are rare,” the authors wrote.

As James Warren of the Chicago News Cooperative suggests, the problem might not be that hardened culture warriors are clustering farther and farther apart in the newsiverse, reinforcing their own stereotypes and preconceived notions.  The problem might be, Warren suggests, that too many Americans are not reading/viewing/listening to ANY news at all.  Though some news consumers frequented sources from both left and right, larger numbers of Americans consumed very little news from any source.

What does this mean for our understanding of the culture wars?  Morris Fiorina has suggested that the hype of culture war has been overblown.  Fiorina argued that most Americans were centrist, but journalists and politicians eager for attention stressed extreme positions.  Perhaps this study bolsters Fiorino’s argument.  The study’s authors found that most online news consumption clustered around centrist sites such as Yahoo and CNN.  I find that heartening.

Some might say that another, gloomier interpretation is more obvious.  According to the study, listeners to Rush Limbaugh were more likely than the average American to also spend some time on perceived left-leaning sites such as the New York Times.com.   And visitors to the leftist MoveOn.org were more likely than the average American to also visit right-leaning sites such as FoxNews.com.  One interpretation is that those readers and viewers were interested in hearing both sides of an issue.  The most obvious interpretation, though, is that each side is only conducting reconnaissance.  Both sides, in other words, scan through the news outlets from the other side in order to expose their foibles and weaknesses.

So, perhaps these ardent culture warriors are only reading their enemies in order to disprove them.  Even so, I consider that a good thing.  Even if culture warriors are only trying to disprove one another, the fact that they are familiarizing themselves with the “enemy” will mean that they have some sense of what other people are thinking.  This study, in any case, seems to give support to a hunch that Americans are not as far apart culturally as some have suggested.

IS There an Education Culture War?

People disagree about the nature and proper direction for American schools.  But do those disagreements rise to the level of culture war?  Unlike the evolution/creation divide, there is a lot of room in the middle.

For instance, are charter schools ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’  Some scholars suggest that charter schools are an attempt to privatize education and undermine the power of teachers’ unions.  They suggest
that charter schools tend to function regressively.

Other charter-school advocates say that charter schools give students and families a fairer chance at a quality
education.  This “Waiting for Superman” crowd promotes charter schools as the ‘progressive’ solution for poor people.

The same could be said for other educational ideas.  For instance, where does the notion of testing fit in?  For most of the twentieth century, the idea that tests could determine the individual strengths and weaknesses of students led the pack of progressive ideology.  With the proper array of tests, progressives believed, schooling could be tailored to each particular student.  The procrustean bed of institutional schooling could be shattered with a more individualized sense of personal experiences and beliefs.

Today, some educational thinkers promote the progressive possibilities of high-stakes standardized testing.  They argue that kids from lower-incomefamilies have been allowed to slip through the educational cracks.  For too long, they argue, such kids have been subjected to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   High-stakes testing promised to turn that around.  Embedded in the language of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was the notion that schools must improve test scores for all kids, including those from groups that historically underperformed on academic

Other education thinkers disagree.  They dismiss such talk as mere window-dressing for conservative attempts to seize school power.  Famously, New York University professor Diane Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate over the meanings and implication of high-stakes testing.  Ravitch helped design the original testing
megalith.  Now she argues that the focus on tests undermines the proper goals of schooling for all students, especially those from the most vulnerable categories.

This broad expanse of room in the middle for disagreement and debate about foundational ideas in the field of education suggests that there is no real culture war at work.  If people can agree on basic terms and notions, even if they disagree about policy and practice, then they must share fundamental ideas about the proper form and
purpose of schooling.  The fact that issues such as testing and charter schools attract different arguments from
conservatives and progressives implies that each side shares most of the notions of its opposition.  The
disagreements are more prosaic than in the starkly defined ideologies and theologies of creation or evolution.

More telling, I have had only a handful of firsthand encounters with culture-war clashes in my career in education.  We all have heard stories of teachers getting fired for offending people’s religious or political beliefs, but in my
experience parents are far more concerned with grades and achievement than in creeping secularism or dictatorial preachiness in schools.

On the other hand, one could argue that education is the ultimate culture-war battleground, since it forces Americans to define their values and rank the importance of foundational notions such as social inequality, race, religion, and the relationship between family and state.

For example, it is difficult to think of a culture-war issue that has not become a clash over schooling.  For instance, the forum for most disagreements over beliefs in creation and evolution has always been schooling.  Should schools teach evolution?  Creation?

Similarly, clashes over the role of race in American culture have been framed as questions about schooling.
Brown v. Board focused on the legitimacy of educational segregation.  George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school, the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama in 1963 to proclaim “Segregation now, segregation
tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Schools also are the field in which activists contend over fundamental notions of social and economic justice.  Schools in poor neighborhoods look, feel, and are funded in very different ways than schools in affluent ones.  Nicholas Kristof’s recent plea for more equalized funding for early-education programs only rehashes generations of
arguments about the power of schooling to combat the great inequalities of American life.

So IS there a culture war in education?  Do Americans fundamentally disagree with one another about the basic premises of schooling?  As with evolution and creation, do the two sides have such different worldviews that they claim not to be able even to understand the other side’s view?  Or is education an embodiment of Louis Hartz’ famous claim in 1955 that America really only has one fundamental political tradition, that of a general liberalism?

If you are a teacher, parent, or school administrator, have you had experiences with culture wars in your schools?  Or is this more evidence to back up Morris Fiorina’s claim that culture-war rhetoric is merely the creation of a myopic chattering class?

IS there a creation/evolution culture war?

IS there a creation/evolution culture war?


Is there really a culture war between evolutionists and creationists?  Have you experienced it in your lives?

Some folks have argued that culture war talk is more the figment of politicians’ and journalists’ ambition than actual fact.  Morris Fiorina and his colleagues, for instance, cite survey data that attests to large majorities of Americans identifying themselves as centrists and moderates on religious and cultural issues.  As they argued in their 2004 book Culture War, “The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States—no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of.”

Their point is valid.  Lots of Americans feel themselves to be in the middle on divisive issues.  Nevertheless, I think Fiorina
and other culture-war-deniers miss the boat on the big picture.  I think we do suffer from a culture war on the creation/evolution issue, for two main reasons.  First, I see a stark divide between believers of the two camps.  Creationists have a hard time believing that evolutionists truly believe their scheme.  Evolutionists return the favor.  Also, the feelings on both sides of this divide seem ferocious and bitter.  These are the ingredients for a durable and damaging culture war.

I’ve seen these effects in my own work.  As I’ve mentioned in these posts, I am personally an evolutionist.  I believe human life came to its present form through a process of natural selection over millions of years.  As a historian of American conservatism and conservative religion, I’ve given talks to largely evolutionist audiences in which I’ve described the ideology and theology of generations of American anti-evolutionists.  The responses I’ve received from those audiences have convinced me that many evolutionists suffer from a real blind spot in their understanding of creationism and creationists.

For example, after one brief talk about 1920s anti-evolution activism, one evolutionist audience member asked me in all sincerity, “What’s wrong with these people?”  She was earnest and sincere; she could not believe that “these people”—creationists—could really oppose the findings of mainstream science for so long.  (See a related discussion over at the US Intellectual History blog.)  There is no way this woman—a distinguished American academic and specialist in multicultural education—would ever allow herself to refer to any other subcultural group as “these people.”  But in the case of creationists, she did not mind lumping them all together in this condescending and demeaning way.  In her opinion, creationists deserved to be demeaned.

Similarly, evolutionists have often asked me if I think creationists REALLY believe in creation, and if so, how they can be so
dense.  The evidence of evolution, to evolutionists, is so self-evident that any disagreement seems either ignorant or mysterious.

Evolutionists often find themselves stumped by the vast difference between their own understandings of life and those of
creationists.  As a result, many evolutionists assume creationists must be scheming and dishonest.  Even in the pages of this blog, I have been accused of being a “lying creationist” for framing arguments in favor of divine creation.  There is a great deal of bitterness with which some people on each side of this cultural divide regard the others.  So much so that any attempt
to understand the other side is seen as stark treason, a punishable offense.

Perhaps my sense of uncertainty developed from my long exposure to other intelligent people who were serious about their religious beliefs.  For a long time I worked in Catholic schools, with a faculty that included lay Catholic and Jesuit
teachers.  Many of the serious Catholics seriously believed in transubstantiation.  They believed that a wafer and a jug of wine could really transform into the body and blood of Christ.  They believed that such things happened commonly, every time there was a Mass, all over the world.

I cannot get my head around that kind of miraculous belief.  I firmly believe that a scientific diagnosis of the wine after it had been supposedly transformed would still show the same chemical makeup that it showed before.  Yet such conclusive proof would not convince my former colleagues.  They might even agree with me that chemical tests had proven that wafers were still chemically wafers and wine was still chemically wine.  And yet they would also believe that they were not.  The wafer and wine had actually become flesh and blood, no matter what the chemical tests may show.  How could my Catholic colleagues believe that?  They were well read and intelligent.  They were good people.  Many had dedicated their careers and lives to
helping others instead of getting themselves ahead.  Yet they believed in this unlikely miracle of transubstantiation.

How?  I don’t know.
But I do respect them as intelligent people and I guess that my inability to believe might be a weakness on my part rather than on theirs.  I can’t help but see their belief as an authentic understanding of the world that differs starkly from my own.  Perhaps the same could be true for those who believe in other ideas that seem outlandish to me?

Have my experiences been unusual?  Have other people interested in the creation/evolution debate had similar experiences?  Those of you who are creationists, have you experienced a wide divide from evolutionists?  Have you seen or felt bitterness and anger toward the other side?  How about evolutionists?  Have you had a difficult experience with a creationist?  One in which he or she would simply not listen to reason?  Or, even worse, one in which he or she lied or acted dishonestly in order to promote creationism?


FURTHER READING: Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004).