Why Civility Is Worth It — Even When Your Opponents Are Totally Wrong About Everything


The history of American public discourse is fraught with factitious, tendentious and malicious vitriol, and every so often there is some short-lived pushback against it. But most attempts to change this dominant paradigm invariably fall short. Rarely, if ever, are any suggestions given for how or why we could create a more civil society. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is one of the rare books, however, that lays out a rationale for civility based on respect and the pursuit of truth.

Before we get off on the wrong foot let us not make the mistake of conflating the idea of civility with that of "wussification" or homogeneity. In fact, it is my contention that just the opposite is true: It is only when there is a vigorous interaction of opposing views that we have a shot at knowing the truth and understanding it. Out of this is born the basis of civility: respect. If we value the pursuit of truth then we will respect an ideological adversary, especially a worthy one, for they will bring us closer to the truth than we could ever hope to get on our own.

There are three very simple ideas to hold in our minds to keep us on track as we engage our opposition in the pursuit of truth.

The first idea is to recognize that the opposition may in fact be right. After all, to say otherwise is to claim infallibility. And who among us, when pressed, would claim such a thing? Even so we see people, including ourselves, and organizations say things as if they believe themselves to be the sole arbiter of truth. One of the most egregious violations in this regard is the use of the term "the science is settled". The usage of this phrase is not meant to further civil discussion. It is meant to silence it. May we never stoop so low.

The second idea, instead of assuming the opposition may be right, assumes the opposition to be wrong. But what of it? Does this mean there is no value in discussing it? Not at all. Are you not discussing your own point as well if you are discussing the opposition? Even if the opposing view is false, will you not gain a deeper understanding of this view and, therefore, of your own position? Some will say that it is enough to simply teach what is true, but what if those who have been taught the truth are suddenly blindsided by a counter-argument they were previously unaware of? Would it not have been better to fully engage the opposing view from the beginning so that the questions it might raise could be addressed? As a seminary graduate and lifelong church attender, I have seen the failures of the kind of teaching that does not acknowledge dissenting views. Oftentimes this results in a young person exchanging one set of "received" knowledge that they cannot defend for another, and they are no closer to the truth.

The third idea kind of does a mash-up with the first two. It supposes that while an opposing position may be mostly false, it could have a small kernel or truth hidden away in it somewhere just waiting to be teased out and fused into the larger truth. Religion and science represent two positions that many see as diametrically opposed. Even if we were to accept this premise, for one side or the other to totally disregard everything its opponent has to say would amount to foolishness. While many religious people find reason to be distrustful of science, it would be hard to argue that science has not furthered our understanding of life and the natural world. In fact, that the universe can be so readily understood could be seen as a testament to its having being created. Romans 1 indicates that we can know God by carefully observing nature, so why in the world would a religious person not make good use of science and engage those who are well-versed on the subject? Likewise, those who find themselves in the science camp should welcome interaction with those who are more religious. After all, science is concerned with the material world and is of little use when it comes to the rest of creation. Religion claims to have knowledge of the world beyond just the material. It claims to go beyond the limits of what science alone can speak to. To make the claim that there is no knowledge beyond what can be discovered by science would not be based on science, but faith. If a person is serious in their pursuit of truth, knowing that science is rather limited in its scope, they would have to be open to other disciplines that are not limited to just the physical world.

So often we see our opponents as enemies and treat them as such. If, however, we can see our opponents through the lens that Mill has supplied we will come to know our opponents as allies in the pursuit of truth and we will learn to treat them accordingly. After all, it is possible they could be right, and even if they are not they can help us know our own positions better by challenging our reasoning. Or, perhaps, though they are wrong in almost every way, there may be some small bit of truth hidden within. Because of their invaluable service in the pursuit of truth, a good opponent should be given respect