It is now nearly unwatchable in its partisan hackery, but there was a time when I rarely missed Hardball with Chris Matthews. From the late 1990s to the early-aughts, the program regularly brought together a diverse and energetic panel of pundits who, while rarely in full agreement, could be counted on to offer thoughtful analysis with wit and a surprising amount of civility and good humor. That began to change during the 2004 election; one noticed some strained exchanges and fewer smiles. During a particularly tense broadcast, Peggy Noonan tried to end a heated exchange and recapture the tail-end of goodwill by pronouncing something that used to be called a truism, but had begun to seem like a rare bit of insight: “people can disagree,” she said, “and still be decent people.”
Beginning my first blog around that time, I took those words to heart; “civility” became its byword, and perhaps it was mere illusion but—for a little while, at least—the blog did manage a civil tone both in its postings and comboxes; commenters from left and right would manage to hold their tempers and digital-tongues; on those occasions where my own passions got the better of me and I indulged in some rhetorical excess, I was usually willing and able to ruefully acknowledge it, re-affirming my commitment to “civility.”
Things began to break down, however, in 2006, beginning with the not-yet-Tea-Partying right. Unable to reconcile myself to their thoughts on immigration reform, I argued against the extreme “solutions” being bandied about and, aligning with the bishops, found myself (and the Catholic church) being castigated as “liberal bleeding hearts” and “socialists” whose interests were about “nothing but a desire for a**es in the pews and dollars in the collection plate.” Although some Evangelical leaders have recently begun to voice similar ideas to those expressed by the bishops, there was at the time no assumption of good faith from the right—no willingness to consider that the bishops and the church were speaking with a sense of mission and conscience, and from a commitment to the dignity of the human person. I lost nearly 2,000 regular readers in that melee, and it seemed worth it to me.
The advent of Sarah Palin, however, seemed to usher in a genuine madness that affected every inch of the political spectrum, and it brought about the blog’s second “crisis of civility.” If I found something praiseworthy in Palin, my “liberal” readers sneered and called me names. If I mildly critiqued the woman, her defensive fans became stunningly abusive. Ironically, as I tried to be both honest and fair-minded about Palin, I discovered neither left nor right could allow an assumption of good faith on my part. Perhaps projecting their passions on to me, both sides assumed that whatever I was writing about Palin was meant as a political manipulation against them. If I tried to offer balanced criticism, Palin fans accused me of “hating her from the first.” When I—because I detest bullies—defended her from an unconscionable assault by supposedly “liberal” people and the press after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, I was derided, even by progressives whom I considered real friends, as being a “secret Palin lover.”
A good-faith assumption that I simply meant the exact words I wrote, in either case, and nothing more, was not permitted. It was deemed not possible.
Ms. Noonan’s dictum that people could disagree and still be “decent people” began to take a real beating, and things have only gotten worse, since then. Lately, I admit, my willingness to assume good-faith of others, particularly of the administration, has collapsed, mostly thanks to the HHS mandate and the shameful willingness of some to mischaracterize the church’s opposition as being about something other than a genuine concern for first-amendment freedoms, and to play along with the utterly false, media-contrived, so-called “war on women” narrative.
I don’t like feeling like this; I don’t like surrendering that “good faith” instinct—and I most certainly do not like being in discord with fellow Catholics, many of whom I have long liked and respected, over a matter of policy.
In America magazine, Father Thomas Massaro, S.J., expresses concerns about this discord, and the disappearance of “civility” among church-members; he writes,
. . .Whatever policy outcomes unfold this year or next or further down the line [we must still share] the Eucharist (and much else) with thousands of those with whom we are not currently seeing eye to eye. Should our future sharing of the bread of salvation be compromised by our current failure to share a modicum of civility?
These are worthy thoughts, indeed. But I think what is becoming a true sticking-stone for many is the sense that the administration, and the press that supports it, have not displayed much evidence of “good faith” themselves—not last November when Nancy Pelosi groused about Catholics having “this conscience thing”; not in January when George Stephanopoulos pretended that someone, somewhere was suddenly scheming to “ban contraceptives”; not when President Obama told then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan that he considered the conscience “a sacred thing” and then actively moved against it.
I would like to believe that Obama spoke to Dolan in good faith. In fact, a progressive friend insists that Obama did mean it, but that he was swayed against his own best instincts by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and others.
I want to make that good faith assumption of the president—I want to believe that he meant what he said to Dolan, back in November—but it’s difficult to reconcile the man who coolly said “I won” to the GOP the very first time he met them, with a president unable to tell his cabinet secretary and advisors that his own opinions and words have weight and meaning; a president all-too willing to play along with a malicious lie, and a spitefully dishonest and destructive game.
If good-faith assumptions cannot be well-founded, what does "civility" serve beyond the preservation of polite fiction?
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Ellis Island West?
How Dare You Criticize Palin
How Dare You Defend Palin
Pelosi and "this conscience thing"
Stephanopoulos on banning contraception"
Father Massaro in America
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