Gnu Atheism, Movement Conservatism, and Civility

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? 

456px-Abraham_Lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Gnu Atheism, Movement Conservatism, and Civility

  1. Love this post.

    Even if we disagree i hope we can be civil, and support each others’ humanity and freedom.

    Are you suggesting in the last paragraphs that civility only lasts until one has “gnosis”? ie We can be civil until we are certain of our arguments and position, and then rude afterwards?

    • santitafarella says:

      It seems to me that this is the human pattern. I don’t condone it, but it does seem that once a person becomes quite certain that he or she has landed at the right answer to a question, patience gets lost with people who haven’t reached the same conclusion in exactly the same way. At some level, if you think you’re definitely right, then when you argue with others you argue with your former “stupid” selves who once thought similar things. It’s kind of a form of self castigation expressed outward. At least that’s my take. We’re all hard on our former selves and feel it took a lot of work to get the clarity we’ve arrived at. It then seems worth aggressively defending against threats. It’s tough, psychologically, to stay in open conversation with others, and acknowledge that, even when we think someone is in error, that he or she might possess some truths that our own vantage minimizes or blinds us to.

      I think that “the first shall be last and the last first” is a good epistemic principle while in dialogue. Center and margin can change with vantage. The larger picture may be obscuring a smaller picture that ought not be ignored completely. Socrates roaming around not claiming to really know things is better than a prophet who roams around claiming he does. One attitude makes for dialogue, the other for (one way) talk radio.

      —Santi

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