Private Civility/Public Incivility

One of the many ways in which I am fortunate is that I am often surrounded by people who disagree with the political ideas that I cherish most. When many of your closest relatives, friends and colleagues are on the other side on important issues, you learn to see people who disagree with you as merely misguided rather than, as is too often the case where such differences arise among strangers, as ignorant, stupid or flat-out evil.

I know that some of the people who are dearest to me feel just as strongly as I do about political issues, but have managed to arrive at the opposite conclusions to mine. Ideally I would like to show them the errors of their ways, of course, but over time I have learned that they are not to be persuaded – definitely not by me, as I can attest, and almost certainly not by others.

The things we believe about values-laden issues become a part of how we see ourselves; few are willing to change their viewpoints based on simple argumentation. Deeply felt political opinions change very slowly, based on the weight of overwhelming evidence, if at all. We are less rational than we would like to think, especially where matters of self-image are concerned.

How each of us sees others, though, depends far more on how they behave than on what they think. The people I love, I love because their personal behaviors bespeak values that I admire, irrespective of whether or not we agree on hot-button political issues. I can forgive them the errors of their thinking on such matters just as they can forgive what they think of as mine.

Not only are some of those with whom I am genuinely close on the other side of important issues, so are a clear majority of the people I’ve crossed paths with at the schools I’ve attended, the jobs I’ve had, the not for profits I’ve supported and the parties to which I’ve been invited. I am, after all, a conservative who has spent all of his life to date in the heart of Progressiveland. So it’s fair to say that a casual dismissal of all the people with whom I differ on issues of great importance as ignorant or evil was never an option for me.

That life experience makes me lucky, but not particularly special. Only those who, based on their own insecurities, consciously exclude those who differ politically from their personal circles actually go through life without hearing – and fully tolerating – conflicting political opinions. I have never lived in deep red flyover (or, in my case, bicycle-through) country, but I can read election results, so I know that even in the reddest states people on the left routinely get 40% or 45% of the vote, just as here in Progressiveland there are Republicans all over the place – we just don’t win many elections.

The whole country is oil and vinegar, just mixed in different proportions in different places. Generally speaking, we get along well, treating our political differences as unrelated to how we should behave toward each other. For that general acceptance of conflicting views, I am deeply grateful.

Sadly, though, our nation’s public discourse doesn’t reflect the personal civility that we practice in our day to day lives. Politicians and media outlets play to their bases’ baser instincts, constantly denigrating the intelligence and morals of those who disagree with their policy prescriptions. They stoke their supporters’ (or audiences’) egos by constantly reassuring them that those who disagree are, quite simply, bad people.

Every time I read a rant about what horrible people progressives are, I think to myself: that’s somebody I love you’re writing about, and I’m not happy about how you’ve written about them. Similarly, when I hear rants from the left about what terrible people conservatives are, I think to myself: that’s me you’re talking about, and I really don’t think that your mother would either agree with your assertions or be proud of your manners if we all knew each other.

Hard as it may be, our political and cultural leaders should try to take the constant vilification of their opponents out of policy debates, and attempt to reason together – just as we normal people (mostly) do in our personal lives. Their doing so wouldn’t make their – or our – differences of opinion disappear, but it would make the give and take of the democratic political process work more smoothly.


M.H. Johnston

2 comments to Private Civility/Public Incivility

  • John Trafton  says:

    Thank you!

  • Bill Nolan  says:

    This is an good essay to think about before we head off for a family holiday gathering. We need to either avoid political topics or find a way to discuss them dispassionately. I doubt that a heated argument ever resulted in anyone changing their opinion. How often do you hear, “Oh yes. Now that I understand your argument, I totally agree. I was wrong, and you’re right.” More likely the final exchange will either explicitly or implicitly be something like, “You’re evil. Oh yeah? Well you’re stupid.” And remember that alcohol is an excellent accelerant.

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