my self, your self, ourselves

Thesis: I have a vocabulary for describing my own behavior that’s full of words about motives, goals, and principles. “Why did I raise my hand? Because I wanted to answer your question. Why did I give that answer? Because I knew it was the truth and I was obliged to say it.” This is a valid way of thinking, because each claim is subject to being tested and can be refuted. (Maybe I raised my hand to show off, or because I misheard you, or to reach for a light switch.) It’s morally important that I think this way about myself, because it reminds me that I am responsible for my actions and must strive to apply the best principles. It’s also morally important that I envision you in the same terms. That is necessary for recognizing your dignity and equality, and it reminds me that I should help you to make your own choices wisely. I should strive to remove obstacles and enhance your freedom.

Antithesis: We have a vocabulary for describing any action in nature that’s all about causes and effects. “Why did he raise his hand? Because an electrical signal traveled along a nerve to a muscle. Why did that signal happen? Because a synapse fired in his brain.” This is the only scientific way to think about life, because science is defined as a third-person account of nature that sets aside the subjective perspective. It’s morally valuable to think this way about other people because then we realize that they are caught in a web of causality and cannot escape suffering; it makes us compassionate. And it’s important that I apply this way of thinking to my own case, viewing my own first-person talk of goals and principles as kind of myth. Then I can escape an overweening attachment to myself that makes me selfish, self-important, and fearful.

Synthesis: There are two ways of thinking about sentient action, the first-person and the third-person mode, and each has its own norms of validity and tests of truth. We are nowhere near being able to make these two perspectives cohere, if we ever will. But we must treat one another right. We’re in this together, and we’re all we’ve got. That requires holding several ideas in our minds at once. 1) I am responsible for what I do and should strive to do right by you. But 2) The condition of my self is of no great consequence to the world and is fundamentally a matter of luck. 3) You face choices and can strive to do right, and I ought to help you. But 4) The condition of your self is a matter of luck; often you will be a in a state of unease or even suffering; and I have compassion for you.

See also: Hegel and the Buddhathree truths and a question about happiness; and on philosophy as a way of life.

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how philosophy is supposed to work

(Posted during the Social Ontology 2018 Conference, hosted at Tufts) We live in a positivist culture in which many smart people hold fairly simple views of science and believe that all rigorous thought is scientific. Their objection to highly abstract conceptual questions and to questions of value (moral, political, or aesthetic) is that these matters cannot be scientific; hence progress is impossible. Endless debate must result from the brute fact that we hold different opinions.

But we must figure out what to value and what to believe about conceptual issues. Given our cognitive and moral limitations as individuals, our best way to think about such matters is with other people–learning from their perspectives and testing our beliefs with them. Words are not our only tools for thinking together–mathematical notations, diagrams, images, music, and bodily movements also work–but words are awfully helpful and usually play a role even when we make heavy use of the alternatives.

Therefore, human beings talk about conceptual and normative matters. We always do, everywhere and in every era. But a literal conversation has drawbacks. Since an actual, oral dialogue must involve a small number of people, the cognitive resources are limited. It lasts for a finite amount of time–too brief to address all the relevant questions and issues. And it proceeds in a linear fashion, with one comment or question occupying attention at any given moment, followed by the next one. Although people may make discursive moves like saying, “Let’s go back to your earlier point P, because I disagree with it,” the participants can barely explore the whole network of potentially connected ideas. A conversation is one walk through one part of the network.

A discipline like philosophy is an effort to improve the conversation by institutionalizing it. Many people can participate in a discussion that is organized in the form of journals, books, symposia, and reviews. Participants publish their claims and reasons, leaving them on the record to be picked up by others. They take time to make each point carefully, offering reasons and considering objections. If someone claims P, other people are supposed to read and cite that claim before they say P or not-P. If you criticize P, then other people who begin by believing P are supposed to read and consider your objection to P before they use it as a premise in their arguments. The debate still continues permanently, but it is supposed to become increasingly organized and refined in a process that is just as cumulative as a “normal science” is. Moreover, the strictly philosophical debate is not insulated from other intellectual work but is constantly informed by developments in the sciences, humanistic thought, and actual events in the world.

This is all idealized. I am perfectly aware that not everyone can participate in a professional discipline’s discussion; in fact, the vast majority of human beings are excluded, for a whole range of reasons. Nor would everyone want to join even if that were easy for them. Those who participate act imperfectly, showing too much deference to certain authorities, demonstrating group-think, etc. And ethics (in particular) still suffers from myopia about cultural diversity and empirical data that Owen Flanagan well describes in his new book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility.

Still the ideal has significance as a heuristic. It draws our attention to Robert Merton’s four CUDOS norms, which he developed for science (per Wikipedia):

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These norms also apply to philosophy, and we can add more values, such as 1) the norm of citing and addressing previous contributions to the same discussion; 2) the principle that academic discussions should ultimately (but not always directly) benefit public life; 3) the value of being permeable and connected to other discussions in other fields; and 4) an affirmative effort to incorporate people and perspectives that have hitherto been marginalized.

See also: is all truth scientific truth?does naturalism make room for the humanities?why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics, and adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science.

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love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017)

Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) is beautifully filmed in Columbus, IN, a small city stocked with distinguished modernist architecture. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) had a rough adolescence, but in the midst of that turmoil, she started relishing one particular modernist structure in an ugly strip mall. (I think it is Deborah Berke’s First Financial Bank, below.) She begins to explore the history of modernist architecture and discovers a possible exit from her current life into a world of art and ideas. 

A fine modernist building is an exquisitely planned abstract design composed of a limited number of elements. So is Columbus. The patterns are “subtle” (which is the effect that Casey “goes for” when she cooks for her mom), but also pervasive. For example, Jin (John Cho) and his father are Korean or Korean-American men who form parallel friendships with Midwestern women. Jin and Haley have difficult relationships with parents of the same sex. Near the beginning, Eleanor (Parker Posey) walks across Eero Saarinen’s Miller House toward Jae Yong Lee. Near the end, Casey walks across the Miller House toward Jin. Just like Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, as Casey describes it, the whole film is asymmetrical yet carefully balanced.

Jin’s father left a line-drawing in a notepad, and Jin tries to identify its subject. It could be Mill Race Park Tower by Stanley Saitowitz. Or it might represent negative space, such as the gap in the brick facade of Columbus City Hall by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Jin’s father, in his coma, is negative space, and the drawing he left probably does depict the gap in City Hall. But Casey doesn’t like that building, ranking it “low teens, high twenties” on her list of Columbus’ architectural monuments. She strives to bridge gaps–much like James Stewart Polshek’s Mental Health Center, which is built across Haw Creek, with the water flowing beneath for the benefit of the patients.

The film is about appreciating where you are and what you have, taking time to observe. Gabriel (Rory Culkin) even delivers an amusing speech about attention spans, ostensibly summarizing the views of a famous–but absent–critic. Everyone wants Casey to get out of Columbus and escape from her family life, but her moral excellence lies in her genuine love for both. This is not a story about a teenager who needs to break away from a small city in Indiana, but about a person who has learned to see and to love what she sees. Columbus is a lesson in both.

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civics in the very early grades

I’m far from an expert on civics for young children, but I bump into the subject in various capacities–as an author of the College Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies, which covers grades k-12; as an evaluator of a pilot civics program in Ukraine, which includes a first-grade curriculum; as a proud board member of Discovering Justice, which focuses more than other nonprofits do on the early grades; and as the director of CIRCLE when we commissioned “Indicators and Measures of Civic Outcomes for Elementary School Students” by Bernadette Chi, JoAnn Jastrzab, and Alan Melchior.

If I’m asked what little kids should learn about civics, this is my working answer. Mostly, they should learn how to relate appropriately to other people: sharing resources fairly, taking turns, resolving conflicts peacefully, and addressing common problems. They should also begin to see that the same issues arise at larger scales and for adults in formal roles. Just as they should they help a classmate who’s crying on the playground, so “neighborhood helpers” like firefighters should help citizens in need. Just as they should resolve disputes with words, so should national leaders. Just as their classroom has rules, so does the society. At some point in the early grades, they should begin to realize that just as kids may fail to treat each other right, so may adults who hold official roles; and when that happens, it requires remedies. These analogies should be represented in the materials, such as historical narratives, that children read and otherwise study academically.

I don’t think we know whether experiencing high-quality civics at age 7 matters at age 17 (or 70). You might expect that it only matters if the experience is reinforced in between, but that’s an empirical question. In 1999, Sir Bernard Crick observed that, “there is no political Piaget,” and longitudinal research on civic development before adolescence is sorely lacking. Thus I base my advice on accumulated classroom experience and theory, not on statistical data.

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empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice

I’d posit the following definitions:

  • Empathy: Feeling a similar emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state. Your friend is mad at her boss because he treated her unfairly. That makes you mad at her boss. Your anger is probably different in texture and intensity from hers, but it’s the same in kind, an imperfect reproduction of her mental state.
  • Sympathy: Feeling a supportive emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state that is not the same as that person’s original emotion. She is mad at her boss, so you become sorry for her, or committed to fairness, or sad about the state of the world, or nostalgic for better times–but not angry at her boss. Then you are sympathetic. (NB You can be both sympathetic and empathetic if you feel several emotions.)
  • Compassion: A species of the genus sympathy. Another person’s negative emotion causes you to have a specific supportive feeling that is not the same as her emotion: you sincerely wish that her distress would end without blaming her for it.
  • Justice: A situation or decision characterized by fairness, goodness, rightness, etc. (These are contestable ideas and may be in tension with each other.) The English word “just”–like dikaios in classical Greek–can be applied either to a situation or to a person who cares and aims for justice.

There is an old and rich debate about which character traits and subjective states are best suited to pursuing justice. One answer is that you should be a just person, one who tries to decide what is fair or best for all (all things considered), who desires that outcome, and who works to pursue it. A different response is that we are not well suited to defining and pursuing justice itself. It’s better to cultivate other emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, compassion–or loyalty, aversion to harm, or commitment to specific rules–in order to deliver more just outcomes, all things considered.

I haven’t yet read Paul Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, but based on this interview and other secondary material, I take it to be an empirically-based contribution to this debate. Bloom marshals evidence that empathy is a highly unreliable guide to justice, probably more likely to mislead than to inform. We should cultivate justice itself, not settle for a substitute, and certainly not the poor substitute of empathy.

For instance, Donald Trump can make people feel empathy for a small number of individuals whose families were allegedly victimized by undocumented aliens, and then use that emotion to build support for deporting millions of people who have harmed no one. A famous example is Edmund Burke’s outrage at the mistreatment of Marie Antoinette, which obscured any concern for the countless people tortured, executed, or “disappeared” by the ancien regime that she represented. (By the way, I happen to respect Burke a lot–and I don’t think it was fair or smart to execute the Queen–but this passage is still a good example of misplaced empathy.)

Empathy can also substitute for justice, as I argued on a visit to Israel in 2013. You congratulate yourself for feeling some version of a suffering person’s emotion and excuse yourself from fixing the problem.

Compassion may be better than empathy. Instead of feeling the same emotion as the other person, you feel a combination of beneficence and equanimity that may be a more reliable guide to acting well. But it’s possible that compassion only clears the deck for reasoning about what you should actually do.

For its part, justice can be emotional. You can feel a powerful urge to make the world more just. That is helpful insofar as the feeling motivates you and insofar as people obtain genuine insights from our emotions; but it is dangerous because the emotion of desiring justice can be misplaced. You can feel great about improving the world when you are actually harming it.

Justice is also necessarily discursive. You must put into words–at least inside your own head–what is good or fair, and why, and make yourself accountable for that position. Therefore, much hinges on whether we human beings can reason explicitly about justice in ways that improve upon our strictly affective reactions to particular situations.

See also: empathy: good or bad?the limits of putting yourself in their shoes and looking with their eyes; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); and how to save the Enlightenment Ideal.

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Election Imperatives: Ten Recommendations to Increase College Student Voting and Improve Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy

I’m on vacation and not blogging, but I’m proud to help circulate a major new report from our Institute for Democracy & Higher Education entitled Election Imperatives. It recommends 10 strategies that colleges and universities should implement to improve political participation on college campuses in 2018 and beyond. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an exclusive story on it this morning. More than a dozen national organizations are endorsing and disseminating the report, and you can see that list here. There is also a nice video gif of the report with photos.

Here are the 10 headings, but you have to consult the report to understand them fully:

  1. Reflect on past elections and reimagine 2018
  2. Remove barriers to student voting
  3. Develop informed voters
  4. Establish a permanent and inclusive coalition to improve the climate for learning and participation
  5. Increase and improve classroom issue discussions across disciplines
  6. Support student activism and leadership
  7. Empower students to create a buzz around the election
  8. Invest in the right kind of training
  9. Talk politics across campus
  10. Involve faculty across disciplines in elections
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suing for better civics

(DCA) Robert Pondiscio for the Fordham Institute:

Many of us who view ourselves as civic-education advocates spend lots of time writing earnest op-eds and columns, attending conferences, and speaking on panels … Collectively, we have spilled gallons of ink urging states, school districts, and teachers to return public education to its roots.

Well, to hell with all that jawboning, says Michael Rebell, in effect. He’s going to force the issue by making a federal case out of it. Literally.

An attorney and Columbia professor, Rebell has been quietly working with a group of law school students to prepare a federal lawsuit to be filed next month, arguing that our public schools are not adequately preparing children for citizenship. ….

Before you write this off as a quixotic quest or mere law school exercise, know that Rebell isn’t just some lawyer, or even some professor. In 1993, he led the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the State of New York and won …

I would add that Rebell’s new book, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is a thoughtful, well-informed, and judicious overview of civics–valuable even if you aren’t interested in the lawsuit. The book also helpfully explains what would happen if the plaintiffs won. They wouldn’t ask courts to set education policy but to require a deliberative process (involving elected officials and others) that would make progress on civics.

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from modest civic reforms to a making a stand for democracy

This summer, I’ve had the chance to lead discussions among 20 scholars and activists who gathered for two weeks at Tufts, to chair the Frontiers of Democracy conference for about 130 educators and organizers (mostly Americans), to work with social studies teachers in Utah and in Ukraine, and to participate in the 4th annual European Summer Institute for scholars and activists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine. I got to meet more than 200 new people, almost all of whom would say that their vocation is to support democracy.

These conversations provoke reflection on my part, a quarter century after I started in the “democracy business” at Common Cause and then at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. It strikes me that our agenda must be very different today from during the Bush I and Clinton years, when I was in my 20s and early 30s. I’ve perhaps been too slow to adjust to the change (the Obama years made me complacent), but it’s not too late.

In the late 1900s, the formal systems of parliamentary democracy seemed secure in countries like the US, and triumphant globally. Autocrats were old guys who couldn’t deliver prosperity, achieve popularity, or anticipate the social movements that toppled them.

However, politics and government were unpopular in the US. We weren’t using public institutions to tackle complex and profound problems, such as de-industrialization, racial injustice, or environmental crises. Maybe that was because the neoliberal center-left–leaders like Clinton and Blair–had simply given up. Or maybe it was because citizens had come to mistrust public institutions for good reasons, and the tools and processes of government were inadequate to the challenges of the day.

Meanwhile, everyday civic life had eroded. Robert Putnam suggested this erosion in “Bowling Alone” (1995); succeeding events have unfortunately vindicated him. Traditionally, formal politics in the US rested on a foundation of associations that brought people out of their private spheres and taught them values and skills relevant to national government. Those associations had shrunk and fractured.

Many of us thought that we should try to “deepen” democracy by adding to the formal processes of our political system better opportunities for citizens to discuss and collaborate. That would repair some of the gaps among citizens and between citizens and the state and would enable civil society to tackle intractable problems. This was the premise of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, of which I was deputy director (1997-8), and of my 2000 book, The New Progressive Era: Toward a Fair and Deliberative Democracy.

Flash forward to 2018, and we observe a very different situation. The autocrats and oligarchs are now the innovators, delivering prosperity and popularity in countries like China. Freedom House argues that democracy has been in retreat for a dozen years. As influential as the book version of Bowling Alone was in 2000 is this year’s How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

Then, one of the concerns was US arrogance and ideological imperialism, as we sent legions of advisers to places like the former Soviet Union and discussed the End of History thesis. We “spiked the football” in the end-zone of the Cold War. Now China offers the model that has rising global appeal: sophisticated technocratic authoritarianism, a corporate-dominated market economy, and assertive nationalism. The US follows that global trend but in a version that inspires almost no one beyond our borders.

Many people don’t merely disapprove of the performance of their respective democratic governments; they explicitly disparage democracy. Whereas every Republican president from TR to George W. Bush (except perhaps Taft) presented himself as a champion of democracy (by that name), now only one of the major American parties consistently endorses democracy as an ideal.

Americans are not merely disengaged and a little mistrustful of one another; we increasingly hate each other.

In the modern world, we observe events not directly, but through media of communications. Those media have been massively transformed since the late 1900s. One third fewer people are employed at journalists today, metropolitan daily newspapers have virtually collapsed, and the global media environment is dominated by openly ideological broadcast companies and caustic social media.

We’ve made some progress on some social issues (health insurance, for instance), but other issues have reached the boiling point. Policing, for example, was racially unjust in the 1990s. People then demanded the execution of innocent young Black men and defended their stance by saying, “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.” But now the person who uttered that particular phrase is the President of the United States and has the explicit support of more than 4 in 10 Americans.

I am increasingly skeptical that our main need is to deepen democracy–to add forums, programs, or policies that grant citizens more valuable roles in our formal systems. I doubt that strategy would block Brexit or Trump or the purge of the Supreme Court in Poland. Deepening democracy might work for addressing a mild sense of alienation from routine governance, but not for holding back autocracy.

If mishandled, this strategy can even help to delegitimize institutions that deserve support.  Caroline W. Lee argues that organized deliberations can co-opt resistance. Cristina Lafont worries that deliberative fora can delegitimize regular democratic processes, such as elections, by making them look so inferior that they don’t deserve protection. China is implementing local deliberative processes at a large scale, perhaps to blunt criticism and improve satisfaction with its regime.

I think the new wave of strategies must have these features:

  1. Democracy must be championed by candidates, parties, and movements that aim to govern, not by specialized nonprofits in the democracy field. We can’t be satisfied with procedural innovations around the edges. Governments must demonstrate that they can get better outcomes by using democratic methods. That means that the same people must offer procedural reforms, democratic values, and substantive policies, and they must deliver results while they hold power.
  2. Democratic reforms must shift the balance of power. That means that democracy can’t be viewed as politically neutral or nonpartisan. Some people must gain influence at others’ expense, to even the balance.
  3. Our strategies must address formal processes and rights guaranteed by constitutions–not add-ons.
  4. We should make more use of direct action and contentious social movement tactics.
  5. Arguments for democracy must be enthusiastic assertions of human dignity, fairness and equity, decency and non-corruption. They can’t be technocratic, legalistic, or procedural arguments, nor can they be hedged with qualifications. Human beings (everywhere) simply have a birthright to be treated as owners of their societies.

In many countries, the torch can be carried by new parties with explicitly democratic values and policy agendas. Pedemos (left) and Ciudadanos (center-right) both fit that bill in Spain.

In the US, the most important struggles involve our existing parties. The Democrats must win in 2018 and 2020, must then govern competently, must articulate a persuasive vision of an inclusive democracy, and must shift from making social policy reforms (like Obamacare) to changing who has power through electoral and labor-law reforms. They must address the third level of power.

Meanwhile, conservatives must capture the Republican Party for a genuinely conservative agenda of decentralization, constitutionalism, and skepticism about government. This may sound like “concern trolling“: a liberal pretending to care about the GOP to score points against it. But I genuinely believe that the struggle of true conservatives for their party is one of the most important frontiers in the US today.

See also: people trust authoritarian governments mostwhy autocrats are winningwhat does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me.

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Florida injunction allows early in-person voting on campuses

From the Tampa Bay Times:

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott’s elections officials showed “a stark pattern of discrimination” in blocking early voting at state college and university campuses, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.


Walker ruled that a 2014 state opinion that banned early voting on campus violates three amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Simply put, (the state) opinion reveals a stark pattern of discrimination,” Judge Walker wrote. “It is unexplainable on grounds other than age because it bears so heavily on younger voters than on all other voters. (The state’s) stated interests for the opinion (following state law, avoiding parking issues, and minimizing on-campus disruption) reek of pretext.”

Judge Walker’s injunction makes a good read, as legal documents go. For instance, “Defendant measures the walking and biking distance between the nearest early voting site and UF from the very edge of campus. … The University of Florida is like Hogwarts, which proscribes on-campus apparating—or instantaneous teleportation. Students do not and cannot apparate within the campus.  Rather, UF students would begin their treks to the early voting site in downtown Gainesville from various points across campus. For example, it is a 2.5-mile distance from the center of campus at a dormitory like Hume Hall to the early voting site.”

We submitted an expert report in support of the plaintiffs this case.

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civility: not too much, not too little

This is the summer for critiques of civility as a virtue or goal. See, for instance, the Color of Change video entitled “Civility Will Not Save Us,” or Tavia Nyong’o’s and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ argument that “the accusation of incivility is a technique of depoliticization.” For them, the “opposite of civility is not incivility, but militancy.”

I take these points seriously. I have never made civility a core goal. I define my work as civic, but civic doesn’t equal civil. Civic politics surely encompasses militant direct action when the circumstances demand it. It’s true that “civility will not save us” because mass participation and resistance are often needed. If “civility” means being nice to political opponents, or accepting the validity of their claims, then sometimes civility is inappropriate. Frederick Douglass was asked to debate apologists of slavery. The British fascist leader Oswald Mosley invited Bertrand Russell to debate him. Both Douglass and Russell were right to refuse these invitations–some people should be shunned.

Further, demands for civility can represent efforts to suppress worthy activism.  William Chafee’s book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom is a classic account of how calls for “civility” were used to try to block Martin Luther King.

Yet, I don’t agree that civility lacks value completely. For one thing, it can be rhetorically most effective to take the high ground. In 1965, Bayard Rustin made the case for talking directly to the undecided middle of the US electorate in ways that would persuade them to support the immediate political goals of the Civil Rights Movement (“From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement“). Whenever we move from protesting to trying to determine policy, we need rhetoric that appeals widely. Rustin was an architect of the March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” According to my friend Harry Boyte, the organizers of the March distributed flyers that said, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” They saw that to demonstrate civility was persuasive and empowering.

To be sure, the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement was left unfinished. This week we read of a Trump voter in Alabama who remembers “that Rosa Parks time” as “just a scary time,” when “her parents, fearing violence, had sent her to the country to stay with relatives.” She believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and fears that the memorial to the victims of lynching may stir up “race war.”  The March on Washington hardly converted this person to justice. But it did help to shift more than 50% of American voters to support a set of landmark bills that made a significant difference, and I would credit these victories to a combination of militancy plus civility.

For his part, Donald Trump would be much more popular if he presided over a strong economy, pushed right-wing policies, but refrained from daily violations of basic civility. His tweets may cost him a friendly majority in Congress. They are contrary to justice, but they are also uncivil, and the incivility may cost him worse politically.

These cases illustrate that political success does not (necessarily) trade off against civility. The two can go together.

Further, we can understand civility not as a way of expressing our views but as a set of rhetorical techniques that invite the other person to talk. Douglass would gain nothing from hearing the speech of slavers. He knew from personal experience what slavery meant, and his position was correct. A debate had no value. But I am in a different position from Douglass. My views about most current issues are murky, evolving, and deeply fallible. I could be wrong–in fact, I certainly am wrong about many things, but alas, I don’t know which ones. For me, inviting others to speak is a way of learning. The Civic Commons says (or used to say): “We’re as interested in each other’s opinions as we are in our own. And we act like it.” If that is civility, then it is a valuable stance for anyone who may be wrong—which certainly includes me.

A third argument in favor of civility is that we should strive to live in a democracy that includes an element of public deliberation. Uncivil discourse is not the main barrier to that form of government. The major obstacles are disenfranchisement, the influence of money, and poorly designed political institutions. But the value of good talk should not be set at zero. Learning to listen and speak to all is part of a more complex formula for achieving a deliberative democracy.

In the end, I can’t help turning to old Aristotle for guidance on how to think about civility if we view it as a virtue.

Aristotelian virtues don’t come with algorithms for determining when and how to exercise them. That requires good judgment, attention to the particular circumstances, experience, and tolerance for uncertain outcomes. We can overdo or neglect any virtue by failing to apply practical judgment (phronesis).

The previous paragraph suggests that any virtue is a “mean” between too much and too little. Thus, in the case of civility, we should apply a Goldilocks principle: rhetoric shouldn’t be too cold or too hot for the circumstances, but just right. Both proponents and opponents of civility make valid points–aimed at the excesses and the deficiencies of civility. Exercising the appropriate amount protects you from both critiques. It’s just that it’s hard to know where the mean lies.

Aristotle would also suggest that each virtue intersects with others. A valuable way to reason about whether we are being too civil, or not civil enough, under particular circumstances is to consider related virtues and vices. Is someone’s civility a manifestation of intellectual humility and fallibalism, compassion, and love of peace? Or does it represent complacency, cowardice, and indecision? Is someone’s righteous indignation a sign of love for justice, commitment, solidarity, and courage, or rather a retreat into self-congratulation?

It takes judgment to know. We should be quick to judge ourselves and much slower to criticize others. And we should welcome a variety of responses, because the same norms are not right for all people in all social and political positions.

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