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Being Nice(r) Won’t Fix America’s Discursive Woes

Will admonitions to be kinder, nicer, more civil, and less hateful be enough to change our pained American discourse? Or have they become part of the problem?

A recent essay by the Public Square staff criticizes the growing tendency of partisans on all sides of our various cultural controversies to threaten violence against those who disagree with them.  It seems that even debates about a provision in the BYU Honor Code can provoke competing death threats.  The essay pleads for greater civility. We should view disagreement not as threatening but rather as a valuable opportunity to understand each other better and to test and refine our own views.

This plea is surely sound as far as it goes.  And yet the essay passes over troubling questions.  Why has our public discourse become so toxic and even menacing in recent years?  Is it just that people have somehow forgotten (or not been taught) to practice good manners and mutual respect?  Or is the destructive tendency noted in the essay merely one symptom of deeper and more worrisome developments?  In which case pleas for greater civility, however sensible and well-intended, are likely to be ineffectual?

I believe the destructive tendencies in current public discourse are a manifestation of even more serious underlying problems.  The point could no doubt be developed in various ways.  We might consider, for example, the decline or dysfunction of the formative institutions that historically have instilled habits of virtue and respect—churches, families, schools, Boy Scout troops, and other intermediate associations.  In this essay, though, I want to focus on a different causal factor.  More specifically, I suggest that the degeneration of much of our public discourse into name-calling and threats is a consequence of two closely-related developments.

First, ironically, the degeneration is an unintended and yet natural consequence of artificial constraints we have put upon our discourse precisely with the purpose of improving the discourse and making it more respectful and inclusive.  Second, the degeneration reflects a more general depletion of our normative resources (“normative” referring to the store of moral assumptions, values, and premises that we appeal to in addressing questions of justice and morality).  This depletion threatens to leave us with little to say or do except accuse and threaten.

Constraining the Public Conversation: “Public Reason” and  Constitutional Secularity

Start with the idea, associated most closely with John Rawls but developed by a variety of theorists, of “public reason.”  Whatever you may think of these proposals, the basic underlying motivation seems undeniably admirable.  In a profoundly pluralistic world, we need to find ways to reason together, treating one another with “equal concern and respect.”  How to do that? The philosophy of public reason becomes intricate; but the animating idea is that in public deliberations we ought to bracket our “comprehensive doctrines” (Christianity, Judaism, Marxism, whatever), about which we are unlikely to agree, and converse within a domain of “overlapping consensus”—reasoning with each other on the basis of premises that all share.  (Or at least that all “reasonable persons” share).

The goal is a good one, surely.  But notice the predictable and indeed intended effect: public reason drastically limits the normative resources that individuals can reason from.  Many of our most fundamental convictions are part of our “comprehensive doctrines”—our basic worldviews or philosophies of life— and these will now be presumptively inadmissible for purposes of public deliberation under this approach.

But if I cannot defend my positions by invoking and explaining my most fundamental convictions, what am I supposed to say?  I may find myself tongue-tied (so that, like the stammering Billy Budd, I might be able to express myself only by lashing out).  Or even if I can figure out a way to present my position using the more meager and generic resources of public reason, this presentation will likely not reveal the real or deeper reasons for my views. You may perceive that I am not being fully forthcoming, and thus suspect me of being disingenuous.  And vice versa: I may harbor the same suspicions toward you. Is this any sort of prescription for promoting mutual respect, . . . or mutual understanding, . . . or a searching and productive public conversation?

If religious convictions and natural law reasoning are excluded from public deliberation, what are we left with?

Of course, Rawlsian public reason is only a philosophical proposal.  But something not so different has been legally imposed by the Supreme Court, in the form of a requirement (said to arise from the First Amendment’s establishment clause) that governments act only for “secular” purposes.  The Court has never explained fully just what it thinks this requirement means (which is probably fortunate, because any attempted explanation would likely be less than edifying).  But one definite consequence has been that governments and government officials, and the lawyers who advise and represent them, firmly understand that laws and public policies cannot be justified on grounds that sound “religious.”

Well, so what?  Is that really a problem?  When speaking in the public square, you or I cannot justify our positions on crime or immigration or marriage or abortion by saying “God ordained such-and-such”: how serious a constraint is this, really?  Not very serious at all, it may seem on first reflection. There is a widely-held view, traceable back to Plato’s Euthyphro, which holds that something is not good or bad because God commands or prohibits it; on the contrary, God commands or prohibits things because they are (independently or intrinsically) good or bad.  On that assumption, why should it ever be necessary to invoke God’s will with respect to particular social practices like marriage or abortion or discrimination?  At least in principle, we should be able to explain why some practice that we favor or disfavor is good or bad, without adding the superfluous (and potentially inflammatory) observation that God commands or forbids it.

But this dismissive conclusion oversimplifies.  For many religious believers, God is relevant to normative issues of various kinds not merely or primarily as a dispenser of particular commands or prohibitions.  Rather, God and divine creation are the necessary predicate for the assumption that the cosmos reflects some sort of normative order—that it is not just the product of a random, morally blind evolutionary process.  This sort of worldview underlies, among other things, the kind of normative reasoning sometimes described as “natural law.”  On a humbler level, the notion of a providential order is discernible in the commonsensical musings and opining of ordinary citizens about things like families or the moral significance of being male and female.

But such reasoning, of whatever degree of sophistication, raises suspicions of “religion.”  And so the constitutional requirement of governmental secularity tends to screen these kinds of reasoning out of public deliberation.  As one salient example, think about the various cases adjudicating the permissibility of traditional marriage laws.  Lawyers and judges argued about whether traditional marriage was good for children—good as understood in terms of mundane and measurable criteria like delinquency and graduation rates.  The lawyers and judges did not consider—indeed they eschewed—questions like whether marriage is consistent with natural law or the providential order.  Such questions were understood to be out of bounds.

So then, if religious convictions and natural law reasoning (whether sophisticated or “common sensical”) are excluded from public deliberation, what are we left with?  With more than nothing.  But with a lot less than we might wish for, or than our predecessors had before the constraints of public reason and secularity were imposed.

Reasoning in Babel

Well then, someone might say, maybe we ought to simply repudiate the constraints that prevent us from drawing on all of our discursive resources—our “comprehensive doctrines,” our religious convictions, whatever.  And maybe we should do that.  But even if we could simply wish those constraints away, would we then find ourselves having rich and respectful public conversations?

Probably not. Rawls’s solution to the problem of pluralism may not achieve what he wanted it to, but he did not simply imagine the problem. Our normative world today is a kind of contemporary version of the tower of Babel, with people talking any number of moral languages and routinely failing to understand each other.

The problem is not just that people have radically different moral views—on sexuality, gender, nationalism, equality, environmentalism, wealth distribution, and other fundamental matters.  That much is obvious. But we differ not just in our ethics but also—less visibly but even more importantly—in our meta-ethics. We differ, that is, about what morality even means, or what it is that makes something morally good or morally bad.  We are, variously (and mostly unconsciously), utilitarians or Kantians, or Marxists, or providentialists, or . . . .  And thus we argue that gender reassignment or late-term abortion is or is not “morally wrong” without even realizing that we are talking past one another.  Because we are using the same words but with fundamentally different meanings.

This is a problem not just among lay-people but also among philosophers.  The philosopher Michael Smith observed that “if one thing becomes clear by reading what philosophers writing in meta-ethics today have to say, it is surely that enormous gulfs exist between them, gulfs so wide that we must wonder whether they are talking about a common subject matter.”

Given these difficulties on a philosophical level, it is hardly surprising that confusion reigns on the popular level.  The ordinary citizen may be passionate in his or her moral judgments—and yet wholly unable to articulate the metaethical premises that would explain what these moral judgments even mean.  Moreover, if those premises could be explicated and verbalized, we would likely discover they differ greatly from one person to another.  The sociologist James Davison Hunter thus found that Americans in essence inhabit “separate and competing moral galax[ies].”

So, in other words, even if there were not philosophical or constitutional restrictions on what we are allowed to say in the public square, how could we carry on productive conversations across such galactic divides. So then, in a situation like this, how are conversations to occur?

One possibility is to try to transform public issues into technical or pragmatic questions, using devices like economics or public choice theory.  Our goal here, basically, would be simply to help more people get more of what they want. And this works up to a point.  Other things being equal, as we say, for the most part people do agree that health is a good thing, that higher employment is better than lower employment, that contentedness is better than a state of discontent. Given our moral differences, it is natural enough that we often try to cram our discussions into this kind of utilitarian or consequentialist frame.

And yet for most of us, the utilitarian conversation will take us only so far.  It is fine to say that we ought to maximize the fulfillment of people’s various preferences: but how do we decide which preferences are admirable and which are despicable?  (The problem is familiar, and obvious.  Do we really decide on the permissibility of rape by balancing the utility gained by rapists against the disutility inflicted on the victims?)  And when choices have to be made about which preferences to fulfill (and which people’s preferences to fulfill) at the expense of other preferences and other people, how are those judgments to be made?  

It seems we need a normative discourse that goes beyond mere utility and good consequences.  Especially in the most fundamental matters—life, death, sexuality, basic justice.  But under the conditions of our moral Babel, how are we to find or develop such a discourse?

The Discourse of Denigration

In this situation, our desperate need for common ground from which to reason may lead us to notice that in fact there is at least one moral premise that nearly everyone does agree on—namely, that it is bad or wrong to act from mere malice or hatred.  That is a principle that, for the most part, utilitarians and Kantians and Christians and Jews can agree on.  So, might it serve as a solid foundation for our normative discussions?

Maybe.  Surely it is wrong to act from mere hatred.  And yet notice the effect of embracing the anti-hatred principle as the basis of our public moral discourse.  Now, how do you advance your position or attempt to win your argument?  What arguments will you make? Well, you will try to show that your opponents are acting from hatred.  They are racists, sexists, homophobes. Haters. That is exactly what a discourse founded on an anti-hatred principle prescribes.

The logic of this rhetoric of hatred will not impel you to adopt any principle of charitable interpretation—to interpret your subject or your interlocutors to make them “the best they can be.”  On the contrary.  The dynamics of this kind of discourse will effectively require that you portray your opponents and their position in the worst plausible light—to make them out to be “the worst they can be.”

Ad hominem arguments were once classified as a logical fallacy.  Today, it seems, they are in many contexts a rhetorical necessity.

This sort of public rhetoric is nasty, to be sure—nasty but necessary, in the absence of more affirmative or ennobling normative resources.  And so that is precisely what we see in so much of our public discourse today—people accusing other people of being hateful.  It is not just bumper stickers—and not just anonymous commenters or trolls on gutter-level websites—that resort to this sort of rhetoric.  In more elite discussions the vocabulary may be slightly more elegant—terms like “animus” may be substituted for “hatred” or “bigot”—but the substance can end up being basically the same. Just read the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor (2013), the immediate predecessor to the culminating same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  Or the opinions of the United States Civil Rights Commission in its statement entitled (with exquisite although presumably unintended irony) “Peaceful Coexistence.”

To be sure, the rhetoric of hatred can be—and often is—given a more chirrupy spin: instead of accusing our opponents of hatred, we can admonish them to “love.”  “Be kind,” we say to our foes, in a condescending, self-righteous tone.  In their actual content, these admonitions are essentially vacuous; they tell us nothing about what love or kindness would entail with respect to the particular issue we are addressing.  But in their tone and connotations, the implication is clear enough: I am being loving.  You are being unloving.  Hateful.

A rhetorical theme closely related to hatred is hypocrisy.  Accusations of hypocrisy are ubiquitous these days.  The Republicans, it is said with indignation, are a bunch of hypocrites.  So are the Democrats. The President is a hypocrite.  And the Chief Justice. And the array of commentators, and professors, and CEOs.  Everywhere we look, crowding us on all sides . . . hypocrites.

Well, no doubt there are plenty of hypocrites.  Jesus was not shy about making this accusation: “Woe unto you, hypocrites.”  And yet indictments of hypocrisy can be at least imprecise and also, often, simplistic and unfair. Do so many instances and varieties of error really reduce down to . . . simple hypocrisy?  People who oppose abortion are said to be “hypocrites” if they support capital punishment or fail to support subsidized contraception or government-funded daycare. “If you sincerely believed in the sanctity of life, as you claim, then you wouldn’t . . . .”  These positions are all debatable, to be sure.  But do the hypocrisy-flinging critics really lack the imagination to perceive possible ways of reconciling these various convictions?

Why, then, are charges of hypocrisy so prevalent?  The answer, it seems, draws on the same explanation that accounts for the pervasiveness of the rhetoric of hatred.  When there is virtually no agreement on moral standards, what are advocates to do?  One possibility, already noted, is to make the most of the one thing everyone still does mostly agree on—the wrongfulness of acting from hatred.  As the theorists of “internal critique” have explained, another possibility is to try to condemn your opponents under their own standards—to convict them of violating their own own moral commitments.  To attempt to show, in other words, that they are hypocrites.

A discourse based on mutual accusations of hatred and hypocrisy is ugly and divisive, to be sure.  As the essay by the Public Square editors noted, many observers today are aware of this problem, and would like to avoid it.  And yet, in the most fundamental normative controversies over life and death and sex and marriage, well . . . what else is there?  Ad hominem arguments were once classified as a logical fallacy.  Today, it seems, they are in many contexts a rhetorical necessity.

The Possibility of Civility?

Given the condition of our normative universe, we should hardly be surprised if public discourse has become increasingly nasty and menacing.  One might wish that advocates would be more respectful of each other.  And yet in our current situation, expressing disrespect and condemnation—accusing others of hatred and hypocrisy—is not merely an extraneous blight on discourse: it is, for some matters and in some contexts, the necessary essence of such discourse.  Indeed, given the nature of the debates and the rhetorical strategies that are employed, pretending to express respect for one’s opponent may itself seem either acidly ironic or else hypocritical.  “I humbly submit, with all due respect, that you are a hateful bigot. Nothing personal, of course.”

Even so, it is not inevitable that these strategies must degenerate into threats of violence.  Not inevitable—but also not surprising.  Once again, our normative and rhetorical situation induces us to express, and to attempt to induce, disrespect for our opponents.  To portray them as, basically, bad people.  But bad people deserve to have bad consequences inflicted on them.  Or so it may seem. At the very least, it is hard to work up much sympathy if bad things happen to people who are basically hateful and hypocritical.

If this diagnosis is correct, then we may doubt the effectiveness of even well-intentioned exhortations to greater civility.  This is not to say that such exhortations are inappropriate.  But the real task—and it is a daunting one—is somehow to replenish our normative resources, so that genuinely respectful and rewarding public conversations become an actual possibility and not just an illusory ideal.

About the author

Steven Smith

Steven Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. He is the Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Law & Religion and Institute for Law & Philosophy. He has a JD from Yale University.
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