A philosopher on why anger has become the default reaction toward those we disagree with—and what we can do about it.
Whether it’s the bumper stickers we place on our cars, the signs we hang in our windows, or the way we carefully manicure our language, each of us feels a need to signal that we’re on the right side. In a period of hyper-partisanship, fueled by Twitter mobs and pile-ons, we’re scared of Scarlet letters. For fear of being deemed unclean by proxy, we end friendships, estrange ourselves from family members, and avoid reading from publications or news outlets which offer viewpoints our social groups find heretical. Those who try to bridge these divides risk being cast out or lampooned.
Civil conversations, intellectual humility, and good-faith discussions are simply not in vogue right now. We need to challenge that.
If we avoid uncomfortable ideas then we risk orienting ourselves around beliefs and practices that undermine our emotional health. If we fend off diverse viewpoints then we encase ourselves in intellectual bubbles and echo chambers; this jeopardizes constitutional republics and distorts reality, hindering our ability to solve problems—together. If we evade meaningful dialogue around maddeningly nuanced topics like politics, religion, gender and sexuality, or economics, then other foundational elements of society are likely to atrophy as well.
The rejoinder to this is a commitment to civil conversations. Instead of isolating ourselves within our moral tribes and raging at each other on Twitter, we ought to keep our communication borders open.
To help people have better conversations, philosopher David E. Smith, a professor at the University of Washington’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, is traveling throughout Washington State providing practical tools for more fruitful dialogue. A member of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau, Smith presents a free talk: “Civil Conversation in an Angry Age.” Despite the pessimism he encounters among his presentation audiences, he believes that by focusing on our common humanity we can heal the divides in our families and communities, and move society forward.
This interview has been edited down for style and brevity.
Jeffrey Howard: Why are you so concerned with the state of civil discourse today? Sure, the United States has experienced greater divisions before—the US Civil War, for example—but where does our inability to speak openly and with intellectual charity originate?
David E. Smith: It is true that incivility has been much worse in our past, but we need to do better [now]. No one possesses all the truth or all the wisdom. We need the insights that others have. I think we struggle with respectful discourse for many reasons. First, I think that we are afraid that if the beliefs of others came to dominate our society, or became law, we wouldn’t want to live in that world. (Or in some cases, those beliefs are the dominant ones and appear to be hurting us or people like us.) Second, when powerful, high-profile people are uncivil, it has a trickle-down effect. Incivility is contagious. But here’s the good news—so is civility!
Which important topics do you find disagreeing individuals have the hardest time discussing?
The hardest topics to discuss, I think, are what I call the big three: religion, politics, and ethics (controversial moral issues like abortion). In part, it’s because we have to make subjective judgments about them and because so many people have deep emotion connected to these issues.
What are the common pitfalls we make that prevent us from understanding one another or resolving social problems? What are some concrete tactics we can use to overcome these?
We struggle with incivility for many reasons. First, we fail to recognize our own fallibility and forget that we are surely wrong about something! Second, we are biased. I understand bias to be the desire for my beliefs to be true. We don’t just believe things—we like our beliefs! Third, identity. We don’t just say that we believe things. We say that we are those things. For example, people don’t say “I believe in the pro-life view of abortion” or “I believe in the pro-choice view.” They say I am pro-life or pro-choice. There’s a danger in making our beliefs a part of our identity. When people disagree with our beliefs, it feels like an attack on us even though it’s not.
There’s a prevailing notion that we ought to engage with ideas through the lens of our respective identities (e.g. identity is primary). The idea of placing one’s beliefs on a table, so to speak, to be dissected and challenged by others, is offensive to some, if not dehumanizing. How would you challenge their reaction?
There’s a difference between a natural identity and a belief-based identity. I am a straight, Caucasian (currently middle-aged) male because nature and/or nature’s God made me that way. But my beliefs about religion, ethics, and politics have been formed and changed through experience. We do not choose our beliefs—they form naturally as we live our lives and are exposed to many different influences. But I can change my mind about my beliefs and in fact, have done so in profound ways throughout my life. This sometimes happens automatically through new exposures (other people, evidence, etc.) and sometimes is the result of intentional questioning and research.
I understand why we say that we are our beliefs and am not suggesting that we change the language. But we should be aware that there is a danger in identifying with our beliefs so closely. Certainly, we are all wrong about something and failing to recognize this is both morally and epistemologically troubling. Truth should matter more than our own beliefs and they are not identical.
If I’m wrong about something and that wrong belief is a part of my identity, then perhaps more needs to change than my belief. Perhaps I need to change. Personal growth is something that we should all value.
What is an example of a time when you were persuaded on a hot-button issue by another person who exemplifies these principles or practices of civility?
As a younger adult, I had a significant change of mind in religion, which has affected my beliefs in other areas of life as well. I can’t attribute this to any one person. It happened slowly over a 15-year period as I encountered evidences against my beliefs and allowed those evidences to modify those beliefs. It’s proof that some people really can change their minds no matter how deeply entrenched their beliefs may be.
Some activists criticize the need for more civil conversation. They argue that calls for civility are merely tools used by the advantaged to maintain the status quo. How would you respond to those who believe uncivil behavior is necessary to create social change?
We had to have a “civil” war to get rid of the great evil of slavery. (At least that form of it.) War is the most uncivil of human experiences. So yes, incivility may be necessary occasionally to bring about necessary change. But it should be the exception, not the rule. People sometimes associate protest with incivility. They absolutely are not the same thing. Protest can be bold and respectful at the same time.
The satisfaction I receive knowing that my beliefs correspond to reality is worth the occasional pain of discovering that I’m wrong about something.
What does a civil protest look like as compared to an uncivil one?
Whenever possible, protest legally and attack policies with your rhetoric, not people. Avoid damaging property. The right of assembly is guaranteed by the US Constitution, but like all rights, it is limited and regulated. If for some reason the law does not allow civil protest, then one must decide whether or not to break the law. Sometimes that must happen for progress to occur, and if one chooses to go there, then one must be prepared to endure the consequences.
At which point does civil conversation become inappropriate, counterproductive, or even ethically suspect?
Civil conversation may be inappropriate when it is insincere. If I find out that someone is being courteous just to avoid conflict or to let me feel good about myself, I feel unsettled. But we must remember that we cannot talk to everyone about everything. We must pick our conversation partners carefully. Civility may be ethically suspect when someone is committing a clear moral violation that hurts others and we fail to deal with it in the name of social grace.
Which hot-button issue today do you think could benefit the most from a boost in civil conversation?
Politics. I’ve heard people describe the dynamics between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in the 1980’s, and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the 1990’s. Fierce political disagreements but always respectful. Let’s get back to doing business that way.
What compelled you toward philosophy and what use do we have for it today? In what ways can non-philosophers’ lives benefit from it?
Philosophy is literally the “love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge in the real world in a constructive way. What could be more important than that? To be wise, we need truth, so philosophy is also the pursuit of truth in every area of life. I have always wanted the truth, even when it was potentially uncomfortable. The satisfaction I receive knowing that my beliefs correspond to reality is worth the occasional pain of discovering that I’m wrong about something. Everyone needs truth and wisdom. The world depends on these things.