The Corner

NRI Ideas Summit

The Value of Civility in the Age of Twitter

National Review’s John O’Sullivan (Pete Marovich)

At the first panel of the National Review Institute Ideas Summit, Matt Continetti, Lee Edwards, Neal Freeman, and John O’Sullivan discussed “The Buckley Legacy and the Element of Civility.”

O’Sullivan paid tribute to Buckley’s “Firing Line,” recalling that it was a huge achievement in the history of political journalism, as Buckley was consistently rigorous and respectful in challenging both his friends and intellectual enemies.

This stands in stark contrast to so much debate in the age of Twitter. As philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli put it,

An argument that is in itself perfectly rational and valid will often fall on ears deafened by prejudice, passion, ignorance, misunderstanding, incomprehension or ideology.

The last of these seems especially dangerous today. Unusually, people seem to choose what to believe not by looking at the evidence but by looking at ideological labels, especially “liberal” or “conservative,” or by asking which group of people they want to be associated with, or by vague feelings and associations evoke by an idea within their consciousness, rather than by looking at the idea itself and at the reality it points to outside their consciousness.

Diplomacy and constructive disagreement are therefore crucial aims for the Right. Within its own ranks, Lee Edwards said, Buckley was a “master fusionist” whose philosophy of “adding, not subtracting, multiplying, not dividing the several strains of conservatism” was highly effective.

However, in some ways, civility is even more important when interacting and engaging with the Left. The immediacy of events relayed on social media can tempt us to shoot from the hip and assume the worst of our opponents. But this is rarely persuasive — especially for those on the fence. As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas put it: “The louder a man shouts, the emptier is his argument.”

Of course, some ideas are highly dangerous and need to be rejected frankly and forcefully. Nevertheless, Antonin Scalia put it well when he was asked how he could be friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job.

Scalia was talking about judges, but this is a good benchmark for all of us who engage in public debate.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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