Civic dialogue is not unconditional

The other day a valued colleague (Carah Whaley, the assistant director of JMU Civics) posted a link on Twitter to an article by Joseph Bubman basically criticizing the civility agenda.

It’s a short piece that’s worth reading. Bubman argues against an approach to “bridge building” that views the political crisis in the US today as the difficulty between the two parties to “cross the aisle” through dialogue, unity, and civil discourse. Such a neutral stance is not appropriate in the current situation:

If we want to increase public safety and prevent political violence, we must move beyond dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and address the causes of violence. We should tackle those causes through collaboration across divides, but still exclude spoilers who support violence to achieve political ends.

Instead of promoting civil dialogue, Bubman calls for “address[ing] drivers of conflict” such as misinformation and political violence. We can come up with more such conflict drivers: racism, interference with democratic processes, policing and incarceration as “solutions” to social problems, etc. etc.

Reflecting on this article, two things strike me.

First, I really like civil discourse. All things being equal, I love the open conversation, the discussion across political differences, the exchange of arguments, sometimes thoughtful, sometime less so. I am not good at it and often just listen and think about what others have said, taking my time to respond. (I owe some colleagues responses to political emails from months ago. They will come!) And even “dialogue for the sake of dialogue” is something I agree with.

Other things are not always equal, however (to cite Justice Brennan in his Teague v. Lane dissent.) Civil discourse under the threat of violence from one side is not only not desirable, it is not civil discourse. Civil discourse does not just happen because we want it but is built on a set of conditions, some of which are necessary: respect for the humanity of the other side, honesty in our arguments and in our use of facts, and obviously the absence of violence.

This doesn’t make civil dialogue to be undesirable. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t carve out places where we can have dialogue—but it may not include actors that are dishonest, poisonous, or latently violent.

Second, I tend to be itchy about arguments of the “do this, not that” sort. Bubman has a helpful table in his article that contrasts what he rejects and what he recommends. While this is a useful summary, it can also lead to righteous word-smithing without substantive change of depth of reflection. Mind you, I don’t think Bubman goes there, but I see the possibility that righteous busy-bodies will try to quell disagreement with calls to addressing drivers of conflict instead. Often, both is possible.

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