Suppose you’re having an intellectual discussion with someone, and just when you have completely demolished his position, he says something like, “You know, civility should be a guiding principle here. It’s apparent that this discussion is becoming very divisive. We must learn to disagree respectfully and without judgment.” What would you think? I’d think the fellow knows he has lost the argument on the merits and is trying to avoid admitting it by changing the topic and raising a bunch of silly accusations about civility.
There’s a certain organization in Washington—it styles itself Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good—that tried this tactic recently. You can determine the ideological drift of the organization from its press releases: President Bush should reverse his positions on war, “torture,” climate and poverty; Bill O’Reilly should stop complaining about department stores that forbid employees to say “Merry Christmas”; the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq; Congress should override President Bush’s veto of the SCHIP legislation, etc. As for abortion, CACG suggests Catholics send this letter to their local newspapers:
As a Catholic, I consider abortion a grave affront to the sanctity of human life. The polarized abortion debate in this country, however, has often been reduced to slogans and rancorous political rhetoric that has done little to reduce the number of abortions. If we are serious about making abortion a relic of the past, we must address the economic and social factors that are often at the heart of the painful decision to end a pregnancy. Research shows that women are less likely to have abortions when they have access to quality pre-natal care, children’s health insurance, jobs that pay living wages, and a strong safety net of social services.
In other words, we shouldn’t outlaw abortion; we should reduce the number of abortions by increasing government spending. It’s thus pretty clear what CACG is: a reliably far-left organization that is about as Catholic as Nancy Pelosi and that aims at influencing people too dim-witted to write their own letters-to-the-editor.
Now, when an organization like this issues a statement saying that Catholics need to start speaking more civilly in the public square, which issue do you think it has in mind? Does it want Catholics to stop saying that the war in Iraq “is an immoral and unjust war … [and] has been a moral and humanitarian disaster”? No, that’s not it. Should Catholics stop saying that people favoring stricter enforcement of immigration laws “demonize immigrants” and want “a punitive approach to detentions and deportations”? No, certainly not. Does CACG want Catholics to stop saying that “the gap between rich and poor has reached Depression-era standards” so that people who don’t favor minimum wage legislation must be motivated by “private interest and partisan gain”? No, that’s not it either. For, as you may have guessed, CACG says all these things itself. But I’ll stop wasting your time, because we both know which issue it is that CACG wants Catholics to shut up about: it’s abortion.
This becomes clear reading CACG’s statement, for besides platitudes about treating respectfully those with whom we disagree, there is no point to this statement except the following:
As lay Catholics we should not exhort the Church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them Holy Communion based on public dissent from Church teachings. An individual’s fitness to receive communion is his or her personal responsibility. And it is a bishop’s responsibility to set for his diocese the guidelines for administering communion.
So CACG wants pro-life Catholics (organizations like CACG make such pleonastic expressions necessary) to lay off pro-choice Catholic politicians. In particular, those uncouth pro-lifers shouldn’t embarrass the politicians by saying that they are denying dogmas of the Catholic faith, might be “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin,” and so ought to be denied communion under canon law (CIC 915-916).
On his canon-law blog, Professor Edward Peters made very short work of CACG’s position from a canonical point of view in ways that I couldn’t possibly improve upon, and last week a group of Catholic public intellectuals—including John Baker, Robert Bork, James Hitchcock, Fr. Joseph Koterski, Peter Kreeft, William May, Michael Novak, Robert Royale, Austin Ruse, and Fr. Robert Siroco—responded to CACG’s statement pointing out its hypocrisy and general fatuity.
Given the low style of argumentation that CACG seems to favor, you can look for CACG to say that the authors of this response are against civility. That, of course, would not be true, but in an effort to make the crime fit the punishment, I’d like to go on record as saying that civility is overrated.
When you’re having dinner with your in-laws, graciously downplaying disagreements about politics and religion is the thing to do, for such discussions usually lead nowhere and often engender bad feelings. It should be different, however, among people who make their living by speaking and writing about issues of public concern, among professors and pundits and politicians. These people voluntarily enter the public square in order to contribute to the common good by persuading their fellow citizens about what that good really is. There are important things at stake here—with abortion, for example, the issue really is one of life and death—and so it’s absurd to say that we should minimize our differences or agree to disagree or fail to bring forward our best and toughest arguments against our opponents lest we hurt their feelings. Quite the contrary, we should state as clearly as possible what we think and why we think it—including why we think our opponents are wrong. We owe this to the public we are seeking to persuade and even to our opponents themselves, for, as Aristotle says, in philosophy we must love the truth more than our friends.
W.V. Quine, arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, once said that philosophers want to be right, but ordinary people want to have been right. Just so, or, at least, this is how philosophers—and public intellectuals generally—ought to behave. Once a person chooses to speak in the public square, he should welcome criticism of his views, even the sharpest criticism. If the criticisms are unjustified, he will in no way be harmed by them, and at least he’ll learn why certain arguments against his views fail. If, on the other hand, the criticisms are justified, then he will have been saved from error and learned something important. The wise man never takes offense when people tell me him what he has said is wrong, even when they do so quite bluntly. When people tell him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he recognizes that they might be right, for, on a wide range of things, he really might be ignorant and uninformed. In most cases, critics will find that he has already considered and rejected the arguments people bring against his views, but every once in a while he hears a new argument and will have to change his mind. His feelings aren’t hurt when this happens. On the contrary, he is grateful to such people and considers himself in their debt. Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser still (Prov. 9:8-9). This, I think, should be the attitude of everyone involved in public life.
So here’s my answer to CACG or anyone else who thinks that, when we are discussing issues of public concern in the public square, the disinterested pursuit of the truth should be sacrificed for the protection of anyone’s feelings: if you can’t take an intellectual punch, don’t play in the public square. You’re only getting in the way of the adults.