At Commentary’s website this week, Peter Wehner appeals to his fellow conservatives to find, in themselves, a greater habit of civility, and resist the temptation to always confront one’s opposition in a spirit of relentless ridicule, dismissiveness, and ad hominem. What struck me in this appeal is how similar his sentiments are to those secular humanists, like myself, who believe that the secular movement has itself become too obnoxious rhetorically—too much like, well, movement conservatism. Here’s Peter Wehner:
Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.
Wehner, interestingly, then offers an argument for his position that enlists, for support, a quote from a famous 20th century secular humanist, Sidney Hook:
[Ci]vility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”
And at the conclusion of his appeal for civility, Wehner enlists as a model for democratic discourse yet another famous lifelong doubter of religious claims—a man who was almost certainly an agnostic—Abraham Lincoln:
Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.” In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”
Abraham Lincoln was a conflicted man. As was, no doubt, Sidney Hook (as a philosopher). And my bet is that Peter Wehner, based on what he wrote above, is a characteristically conflicted man. It is the conflicted person who seeks dialogue—that is, respectful dialogue—with others. But once you think that you’ve arrived at the full truth about something, well, what’s the point of having dialogue with people who are quite obviously wrong about it (except to convert or humiliate them)? Socrates civilly dialogued with others only because he was quite certain that there was a lot that he didn’t know. Civil Socratic dialogue, like Baconian science, is an instrument that humans use for arriving at truth. In the journey toward truth, two heads are usually better than one. But who needs a bus to Springfield if you think you’re already in Springfield?