Make ‘Civil Society’ Civil Again

Attendees at the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washingon, D.C., June 15, 2017. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Some practical suggestions, after the ball-field shooting.

In the wake of the horrific shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others, people all over the country are asking, How can we excite people to be prudent? Can someone issue a clarion call for calm? Is it possible to rouse people for restraint? Somehow, mores of reasonable public discourse and behavior must be reinvigorated, because what once was called “civil society” is now full of rampant incivility.

Cable-news outlets believe shout-fests attract viewers; Twitter encourages people to spout off before self-filtering their worst impulses. Politicians across the spectrum smear opponents with apparent impunity. Peaceful rallies give way to “occupations,” and protests turn into riots.

We worry that these trends might fray our nation’s social fabric to the ripping point. One of us has been a Reagan-conservative activist and writer for 40 years. The other is a retired Episcopal bishop loosely categorizable as a Hubert Humphrey liberal. Together, we fear that friendly and constructive conversations of the sort we have enjoyed with each other for 37 years — some, but relatively few of them, being overtly political — are becoming a seriously endangered species in today’s America.

What, pray tell, can be done about it? How can intemperance be made unpopular, rather than exciting? How can mutual respect be rewarded? We offer no sweeping, programmatic solution, no ten-point plan or magic elixir. What we offer is attitudinal, aspirational, and conversational.

It also is very practical. Mutual respect works. It produces better results. It creates success from the miasma of mediocrity.

It also is necessary. We believe that listening deeply to the other can help us avoid the abyss of cultural and societal chaos.

Two disparate examples, one from Mississippi and one from Silicon Valley, serve to highlight the practicality and necessity of better listening and of more temperate self-expression.

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, located at the University of Mississippi, has achieved remarkable success in its Welcome Table program, an extraordinary initiative to facilitate racial healing in communities into which local leadership invites it.

This is not one of those approaches of the “teach white people how badly racist white society is” variety. Instead, it really does use a format in which all thoughtful views are welcome. No one view is pre-favored. Participants agree on a set of guidelines for conversation before the work begins. The guideline that has been the difference maker has been the requirement that, in the midst of disagreement, participants discipline themselves before mounting a counterargument—that they ask themselves this question: “I wonder why . . . ?” As in: I wonder why this person sees the world this way and makes this argument? When that posture of wonder, requiring great courage, is conveyed to the ostensible adversary, remarkable things happen.

When that posture of wonder, requiring great courage, is conveyed to the ostensible adversary, remarkable things happen.

The Welcome Table’s most recent high-profile success came when it played an important role in the nationally praised civic response in Charleston, S.C., to the 2015 church shootings there by young white-supremacist Dylan Roof.

A decade earlier, the Welcome Table oversaw a high-profile community dialogue surrounding the 40th anniversary of the three civil-rights murders near Philadelphia, Miss., in Neshoba County). The murders served as the (loose) basis for the popular movie Mississippi Burning. The conversations led to a new trial and the conviction of the perpetrators; the election of the first black mayor of the majority-white town; the de facto(and voluntary) desegregation of numerous programs for kids; and a serious jump start to economic development as businesses that had shunned the town now expanded or moved in.

Speaking of Neshoba County: The ordained co-author of this piece is the son of another bishop of Mississippi, one known for leadership in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. When he was in Meridian, that earlier Bishop Gray became a confidante of and confessor for a member of the Klan. The chronology is a bit uncertain, but either before or after a series of conversations, the man was or became an FBI informant helpful to the investigations in Neshoba County as well as in local church and synagogue bombings. The elder Bishop Gray once asked him why he came to him — a man clearly on the other side of the defining issue of that moment. His response: “You seemed like you would listen.”

Listening is crucial. Silicon Valley, on the other side of the country from South Carolina and Mississippi both geographically and culturally, still boasts, as it has for years now, one of the country’s fastest-growing economies. But its busts are almost as famous as its success stories. At a social gathering a few weeks ago with one of this essay’s authors, a current Silicon Valley mid-level executive volunteered, in the course of conversation, the observation that the Valley businesses that succeed are those that deliberately promote “cognitive diversity.” In other words, they welcome different viewpoints (cultural, strategic, and otherwise) and patterns of thinking — as a boon for self-testing, for recognizing possible problems, and for finding creative solutions.

The companies that fail, he said, do the opposite: monolithic groupthink. They don’t listen.

One need not look far to see examples of this; one recent cautionary tale involved the blood-testing outfit Theranos, now relegated to trying to sell shares to investors “who promise not to sue.” Vanity Fair laid part of the blame on the extremely insular culture at Theranos. Founder Elizabeth Holmes “largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on.” By contrast (and confirming what the conversationalist said to us), a Harvard Business Review in-depth study of Silicon Valley found that the successful companies there almost invariably create “an environment that fosters collaboration” by encouraging ideational exchanges while showing an “ability to tap the collective minds of the organization.”

Yet, in government, media, and other realms of large-scale communal enterprise, the trend is away from what works for the Welcome Table and Silicon Valley and toward greater polarization.

A simple proposal: Could we try to start in a different place in our all-consuming national debate? Is it possible to seek, with as much passion as we build our arguments, what are our deepest and most cherished goals?

Is it possible to seek, with as much passion as we build our arguments, what are our deepest and most cherished goals?

The effort to find our truest goals — peace, security, health, etc. — and put them into words, so we can hear what both our friends and adversaries think about them, can help us see clearly what we too often forget, that our disagreements are most often about the paths and strategies to such goals and less about the character of the person with whom we disagree. Increasing clarity of argument, even discovery of deeper truth, could replace character assassination. Passionate debate need not obscure the important ends we hold in common.

Is such a modest proposal possible? Once it was the cultural norm.

Fortunately, some people still recognize this. In an extraordinary new initiative, the Summa Theological Debate Society, high-school students are taught the classic skills of debate in a summer-camp experience at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. They then tackle the thorniest of contemporary ethical issues — e.g., the nature of self-defense, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, etcetera — by learning to make arguments from both sides. The award to the top debater goes to the one who most effectively “speaks the truth in love.” (It’s not the only such program: Witness the Congressional Student Forums, a program of the Institute for Civility in Government.)

We are not naïve idealists. We understand that many factors, including balkanized media sources and incumbent-protection redistricting plans, lead us to associate almost exclusively with those who already think like us. But we also know that Americans are an immensely practical people — and it is impractical to continue trying to make a government and a culture work well when society is so polarized. We trust that hard-nosed realism can supply the defect of fuzzy do-gooder-ism, leading us to seek common ground out of sheer necessity even when other, higher motives are lacking.

The change can and should start with politics. In this realm, looking to the past for guidance can lead to a better future.

Until about the 1990s, the tradition for major legislation on Capitol Hill was that of bipartisan sponsorships, with legislation usually known not by clever acronyms but by the names of the sponsors. The Gramm-Latta and Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget bills, the Kemp-Bradley-Gephardt tax reform, the Goldwater-Nichols defense-reorganization bill — all were crafted in the tradition of the famously bipartisan civil-rights legislation of the 1950s and ’60s, when Democrat Lyndon Johnson worked in concert with Republican Everett Dirksen.

Even in this short century, a few outbreaks of bipartisanship have occurred: Witness the cocaine-related Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, where Democratic Senate leaders Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy joined a nine-year mission of Republican Jeff Sessions to eliminate racial sentencing disparities.

Jeff Sessions, Patrick Leahy, Lyndon Johnson, and Barry Goldwater weren’t exactly weak-willed men seeking compromise at the cost of principle. Instead, they forged consensus in support of their principles. There’s no reason coalitions similar to theirs can’t be recreated.

Indeed, several policy areas suggest themselves as potential starting points. The first one draws from the Sessions-Leahy-Durbin experience on criminal sentencing. In state after state in recent years, coalitions of fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and old-fashioned liberals have joined to find solutions to prison overcrowding — usually by pushing alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders.

The second is in environmental protection. Especially on Scalise’s Gulf Coast, outdoor sportsmen (hunting, fishing) who strongly tend toward political conservatism also are often devout conservationists. Common ground is certainly possible on efforts to save wooded, alluvial, and undersea habitats — as long as the means aren’t too intrusive or retardant of commerce.

Regardless of the issue involved, we have every good reason to observe mutual respect, a moderate demeanor and attitude, and prudence in temperament and methods, even when dealing with those of sharply divergent philosophies.

These aren’t mushy-headed, thumb-sucking niceties; they are essentials in a pluralistic republic. Consider the example of James Madison, whose original proposal for a new Constitution was revised almost beyond recognition at the Constitutional Convention. He nonetheless embraced the final, compromise version as in many respects wiser than his original. He neither won most of his arguments in Philadelphia nor drafted the final document we know today, yet he is still rightly known as the “Father of the Constitution,” because he knew how consensus both leavens and strengthens principle.

We are a nation that works best when we listen and learn from each other and incorporate each other’s wisdom into mutual endeavors.


Can a Divided America Survive?

We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce

Speech Is Not Violence and Violence Is Not Self-Expression

Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review Online. Reverend Duncan Gray is the former Episcopal bishop of Mississippi.


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