Public discourse nowadays lacks civility. It is downright vitriolic at times. One need only glance at the news to observe how much heated rhetoric abounds in public discourse in places such as the United States. In my home country of Canada, certainly, the climate is comparatively calmer but we are not immune. Some of our own major party leaders have explicitly stated that they predict a nasty 2019 Canadian federal election. Moreover, the Munk debate, held in Toronto between David Frum and Steve Bannon highlighted how our political culture is inextricably intertwined with that of the United States. It is worrying that we may lose our relatively polite atmosphere of public discussions in Canada.
So, how can we defend civil discourse in Canada and abroad? What we need is resolute moderation. This entails having a charitable mindset that takes seriously what others have to say, while standing by one’s principles. Concretely, it means reaching out to those with whom we disagree and being able to have productive conversations. It is not merely taking a position in the middle between two extremes.
I recall a conversation with a colleague about a contentious issue. While it was a friendly conversation, perhaps what stuck in my mind the most was the phrase so, you’re essentially saying, after which he mischaracterized my argument. I did not make the point which he attributed to me.
We often intellectually spar with versions of our adversaries that we ourselves have conjured up. It’s easy to do and almost all of us do it. Someone makes statement A, therefore they’re culpable of also endorsing statement B because, in my mind, I have made the connection between A and B. But this person may not have. This person could be defending statement A without defending statement B. Nuance seems to have become a lost virtue. For example, some on the right of the political spectrum may have concerns about immigration. This does not ipso facto make them antithetical to a broad notion of diversity. Let’s stop playing with unwarranted hyperboles.
It is important to take people at face value—just as we would like to be taken. Before I even try to criticize another person’s position, I had better be able to characterize her position in a manner with which she can agree. The first step should be to assume that the point being made has prima facie legitimacy. In the ensuing discussion, if I find points with which I disagree, then I can demonstrate why her points are illegitimate.
The process of accurately characterizing someone else’s argument clarifies her point of view. It puts me in her shoes so that I can really dig deep into what she is trying to convey. And by asking the other person if she can agree with how I have stated her argument, I can then mentally gauge whether I myself have made unwarranted assumptions about her position. Without this common ground, we end up talking past each other, not with each other.
The crux of disagreements, then, seems to lie in the specific details. It’s not that one side values a commonly held good, while the other side does not. For instance, it’s convenient to accuse someone who is opposed to pipelines of not caring about the economy. However, most, if not all, people care about the economy. It is absurd to accuse someone of not caring about the economy. The disagreement would seem to be more about specific priorities in a given context. The key, then, is to probe the reasoning behind these specific priorities.
Underlying such intellectual charitableness is a fulsome interpretation of what it means to be rational. John Finnis writes:
Reason, when not subordinated by less intelligent powers, aligns one with the truths overlooked by egoism … There is a natural friendship, thin but real and intelligent, of every person with every other person … Conversely, game-theoretical or economistic models of rational choice yield no determinate strategy or outcome when the players’ preferences include a concern for the fairness and decency of the outcome—a concern for common good.
But are there instances when another person’s argument simply cannot be charitably considered, such as when it poses as a shock to the conscience?
Drawing Red Lines
We need to have clear red lines. Being charitable does not mean being a pushover. One should freely concede an argument if it is demonstrated to be unsupported or illogical through the process of debate. However, one should not concede an argument with the exclusive or primary aim of finding a pseudo middle ground or appeasing an adversary. This is what makes resolute moderation resolute.
The trouble is that an overzealous and overly broad definition of one’s red lines can have the detrimental effect of shutting down conversation.
At what point do I stop listening to someone or considering her point of view? For instance, the phenomenon of no platforming seems to have gained traction in recent years. On a personal or individual level, the equivalent issue is—at what point do I stop granting someone the platform of my mental arena?
Perhaps we should stop considering another person’s views when no common ground can be established in spite of persistent attempts—made in good faith—to characterize her argument in a way with which she can agree. This breakdown may be accounted for by deep disagreements about facts, as Klemens Kappel has suggested. In other words, although we share the same reality, there may be profound disagreements about what this reality consists of. For example, vaccinations are safe, effective and save lives. Some individuals who deliberately choose not to vaccinate themselves or their children because of a belief in homeopathy are at diametrical odds with large, if not overwhelming, segments of society who are aware of the effectiveness of vaccinations and the scientific reasons for their importance. The disagreement can run deep because some people question the scientific principles behind vaccinations. This comes down to a disagreement about how reality—in this case, our human bodies—works. While I do not hold the position that people cannot believe in homeopathy, it is different when these beliefs turn from healthy—yet still debatable—skepticism (e.g. questions about an excessively naturalistic view of the world and the role of Western medicine) to conspiracy theories and delusional beliefs that have become untethered from reality. And these beliefs are not reconcilable with fair-minded debate.
Nevertheless, charitableness must play an integral role in discourse. As Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor note in their book, Retrieving Realism: “[While] there is no one language for correctly describing nature, there could well be many languages each correctly describing a different aspect of reality.” This does not imply unbridled relativism. Rather, it means recognizing that “we have been through a ‘way of experience’ (Erfahrungsweg) which is irreversible,” while “[leaving] open the possibility that there is no single way the universe works.”
What this comes down to is a personal policy of minimizing the impairment of the possibility of open exchanges of ideas. The importance of minimal impairment is that beliefs can only be improved and refined when they are challenged. I recall having held, quite strongly, the belief that assisted dying ought to be legalized (before it was legalized in Canada) and that it ought to be more accessible to individuals who can freely consent. Then, in the midst of Neil Gorsuch’s US Supreme Court nomination process, news stories highlighted his stance against assisted suicide. I was skeptical, initially, of whether his stance would be a re-hashing of conservative talking points. Then I read his book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. He presents nuanced, persuasive arguments—arguments which directly address my beliefs—based on respect for autonomy. While I cannot say that I am firmly on either side of the debate at this point, by having given a hearing to ideas which with I disagreed, I came to appreciate the nuances of Gorsuch’s thinking.
Perhaps more importantly, minimizing how much we restrict the exchange of ideas allows us to realize how much we actually agree with one another. For example, legal philosophy is characterized by a longstanding opposition between legal positivism (crudely, the idea that law and morality are not necessarily related) and natural law theory (crudely, that law and morality are necessarily related). H. L. A. Hart was an influential advocate of legal positivism while John Finnis has been an advocate of natural law theory. In spite of their philosophical differences, Finnis describes Hart as “well within the territory of classical natural law theory. But he declines to settle down as a citizen there.” Ostensible differences in beliefs often remain just that—ostensible and nothing more. To treat matters with equal parts critical questioning and charitable consideration leads to a fuller and more accurate picture, a picture which may be appreciated (sometimes slightly begrudgingly) by our intellectual adversaries.
So, what should we make of civil discourse in the current environment? Do not be afraid of being a contrarian. Be a maverick when it is required by the dictates of reason. It has been said that John McCain was an exemplar of bipartisanship, as demonstrated in his relationships with individuals across the aisle, such as Joe Lieberman and Ted Kennedy. Perhaps more fundamental than a notion of bipartisanship, however, was that McCain sought out other mavericks, people with whom he disagreed but with whom he could carry on productive discussions. And this is what we should strive for—to find people with whom we disagree and to have productive and challenging conversations outside of our own echo chambers.