Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Civility is overrated

Robert T. Miller at First Things:
When you’re having dinner with your in-laws, graciously downplaying disagreements about politics and religion is the thing to do, for such discussions usually lead nowhere and often engender bad feelings. It should be different, however, among people who make their living by speaking and writing about issues of public concern, among professors and pundits and politicians. These people voluntarily enter the public square in order to contribute to the common good by persuading their fellow citizens about what that good really is. There are important things at stake here—with abortion, for example, the issue really is one of life and death—and so it’s absurd to say that we should minimize our differences or agree to disagree or fail to bring forward our best and toughest arguments against our opponents lest we hurt their feelings. Quite the contrary, we should state as clearly as possible what we think and why we think it—including why we think our opponents are wrong. We owe this to the public we are seeking to persuade and even to our opponents themselves, for, as Aristotle says, in philosophy we must love the truth more than our friends.

.... Once a person chooses to speak in the public square, he should welcome criticism of his views, even the sharpest criticism. If the criticisms are unjustified, he will in no way be harmed by them, and at least he’ll learn why certain arguments against his views fail. If, on the other hand, the criticisms are justified, then he will have been saved from error and learned something important. The wise man never takes offense when people tell him what he has said is wrong, even when they do so quite bluntly. When people tell him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he recognizes that they might be right, for, on a wide range of things, he really might be ignorant and uninformed. In most cases, critics will find that he has already considered and rejected the arguments people bring against his views, but every once in a while he hears a new argument and will have to change his mind. His feelings aren’t hurt when this happens. On the contrary, he is grateful to such people and considers himself in their debt. Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser still (Prov. 9:8–9). This, I think, should be the attitude of everyone involved in public life.
First Things » Blog Archive » Catholic Civility

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