The Family Scholars blog has recently hosted a long discussion on civility with many of its resident writers. (Here are early contributions from Barry Deutsch, Amy Ziettlow, Ralph Lewis, Elizabeth Marquardt, and Fannie; for others, visit the blog.) Their conversation spurred me to think about what may be the toughest question in arguing about contentious moral issues: whether and how to say “what you are doing is wrong.”
It’s a hard thing to say and a harder one to hear. Even when couched in more gracious language and surrounded by personal compliments, it will almost certainly offend the person to whom it is said, especially if that person belongs to a persecuted or unpopular minority. And thus it can often be called uncivil.
But the statement remains crucial, and not just to the freedom of speech and public discourse but also to moral progress. After all, “what you’re doing is wrong” was said by abolitionists to slave-holders, by civil rights protesters to segregationists, by feminists to men who beat their wives. Today, vegetarians say it to meat-eaters, pacifists to soldiers, pro-life protesters to doctors who perform abortions, environmentalists to polluters, and so on.
Obviously the statement can be made in error, in an abusive manner, or in an attempt to vilify and harm someone. It rarely promotes unity, and it’s something I think we should avoid aiming at complete strangers on the Internet. In short, it doesn’t always contribute to public discourse and moral reform.
Yet in this pluralistic society, where nearly all of us are in a minority with regard to at least one of our ethical convictions, we should not be too quick to cry “uncivil!” and end the conversation when one person accuses another of immorality.