"The problem is that there's this big gap between who we are as a people and how our politics expresses itself."
~ Barack Obama
"One thing that you find in most of the great wisdom traditions is the idea that reality as we see it is an illusion, it’s a veil, it blinds us, and enlightenment is taking down the veil, seeing things as they are, transcending dualities. And that, I think, is really crucial for thinking about civility, because that’s what happened to me in writing this book and in doing this research."
~ Jonathan Haidt
Excerpt from "The Problem is Civil Obedience," by Howard Zinn, fromThe Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy:
I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don't have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.
If you don't think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.
And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem...Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience...We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin's Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.
Law is very important. We are talking about obedience to law-law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly. The rule of law, oh, how wonderful, all these courses in Western civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in the Middle Ages—but now we have Western civilization, the rule of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically, not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined it before.
When in all the nations of the world the rule of law is the darling of the leaders and the plague of the people, we ought to begin to recognize this. We have to transcend these national boundaries in our thinking. Nixon and Brezhnev have much more in common with one another than—we have with Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover has far more in common with the head of the Soviet secret police than he has with us. It's the international dedication to law and order that binds the leaders of all countries in a comradely bond. That's why we are always surprised when they get together—they smile, they shake hands, they smoke cigars, they really like one another no matter what they say. It's like the Republican and Democratic parties, who claim that it's going to make a terrible difference if one or the other wins, yet they are all the same. Basically, it is us against them.
Excerpts from “Restoring Political Civility,” a conversation between Krista Tippet and Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics and author or Uncommon Decency), Being, October 14, 2010:
Richard Mouw: …to be civil comes from civitas and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters and brothers, cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn't just based on blood relative stuff.
But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that's not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they're human like me and I got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship
Krista Tippett: So here's another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, "In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God."
Richard Mouw: Oh, yeah. That's right. Going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there's this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn't just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I've been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.
Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn't just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn't come easy. I'm kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it's a very important exercise to engage in.
Krista Tippett: You have been very clear and open across the years, for example, about your theological opposition to gay marriage. I could imagine that someone who is homosexual might hear what you just said and feel that in fact that doesn't find expression when you look at them.
Richard Mouw: Well, and — and it should. I have really tried to emphasize the fact that even in expressing our disagreements — and this is a very complicated thing — but that we're dealing with people who are precious works of divine art. You know, I have argued on a number of occasions and actually gotten some very positive response from folks in the gay-lesbian community that maybe — I even wrote a Newsweek piece on this.
You know, maybe it's time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something like this where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, "what is it about people like me that scare you so much? And that you in turn would listen to me when I say, what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised? And that we talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in, you know, despicable behavior, but could that shape a very different kind of discussion." As we move toward — the really important question is how are we going to be able to live together in this pluralistic society with at least some better understanding of what motivates us beneath the angry denunciations and things?
“In all sharp moral disagreements, maximalism is the constant temptation. People dig in, positions harden and we tend to convince ourselves that our opponents are not only wrong-headed but also malicious and acting in bad faith. In such conflicts, it can seem not only difficult, but also wrong, to compromise on a core belief.”
“But clinging to extremes can also be quite dangerous. In the case of gay marriage, a scorched-earth debate, pitting what some regard as nonnegotiable religious freedom against what others regard as a nonnegotiable human right, would do great harm to our civil society. When a reasonable accommodation on a tough issue seems possible, both sides should have the courage to explore it.”
~ “A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage,” David Blankenhorn, author of The Future of Marriage, and Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.
Excerpts from Rise of the Takedown by Alex Williams, New York Times (4/8/07):
“It’s a new generation, and there are a lot of people who say they have more of a feeling of entitlement,” said Michael Addis, director of the new film, Heckler. He added, “They feel like they should be getting the attention.” Indeed, Asher Patrick, a temp worker whose hectoring of the comedian Jamie Kennedy at a Nashville comedy club last year earned him a brief appearance in the movie, said in a telephone interview last week that he saw his role as “more of a critic” than a hooligan.
But what is driving all this vitriol? One factor, at least where the Internet is concerned, said Mr. Addis, is that “sex sells, but hate really sells,” and helps bloggers draw traffic. Mr. Kennedy believes that Internet meanness, which flourishes on media gadfly blogs and pop culture Web sites like televisionwithoutpity.com and PerezHilton.com, and independent movie review sites like mrcranky.com and rottentomatoes.com, has bled over into public discourse, a point echoed by P. M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who founded the school’s long-running Civility Initiative.
The psychological term, Dr. Forni said, is the “disinhibition effect,” where people express themselves more openly or bluntly online than they would in person. The old filters — namely, good manners — atrophy offline, and the result is a cultural narcissism: people think that only their feelings and opinions matter.
The comedian Kathy Griffin said in a later interview that heckling has thrived as “the lines have become blurred” between legitimate performers and mass-produced pseudo-celebrities, like those manufactured by reality television and YouTube home videos. If everyone’s a star, no one is — so forget the traditional deference that fans once accorded the famous.
“Let’s face it, it’s their moment in the sun,” she said of taunters. “The guys who heckled Michael Richards did 20 interviews.”