“When you wake up in the morning,” the Roman stoic Marcus Aurelius advised some 20 centuries ago, prepare for disappointment. “Tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly,” he writes. He then admonishes us to remember that we are not so different ourselves, and that the people who will infuriate us in the course of the day are “of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”
If only we were capable of such self-awareness. Alas, civility has taken a beating over the past few decades or so in our public life. Americans, it seems, are seeking new ways, large and small, to offend each other. This lack of civility has soured our politics — especially during and after the contentious election of 2016 — to the point where we now no longer simply disagree with each other, but express open contempt to others who do not share our point of view.
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As we enter another election cycle in which the central figure will be the least civil man ever to occupy the Oval Office, at least some public figures are calling for the defeat of contempt and a return to a more civil discourse. Arthur Brooks, the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently implored us in the New York Times to “turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers — the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt,” and instead to take the chance “to change at least one heart — yours.”
Only the worst misanthrope can disagree with the case for warmth and fellowship. A call for civility and kindness is a call for a better society, full of the trust and good faith that are at the foundation of a democracy.
Such pleas, however, avoid an important question, one that is just as crucial to maintaining a healthy social order as are the civic virtues: What do we do when our fellow citizens express views that are, in fact, contemptible?
A decent society requires guard rails
Notice that I do not add here “actions” that are contemptible, because we already have remedies — mostly — in the law and the courts to address the behavior of our fellow citizens. Racial and religious bigots are free to peddle their poison all day long, but if they engage in violence against other people, they have broken a prohibition that is independent of their views.
But when someone wears a shirt implying that they condone the lynching of journalists (seen at a Trump rally), or argues that sexual attraction to children (in the case of Alabama’s Roy Moore) should not be a disqualification from public office, or that Jews are inherently unpatriotic because they have loyalties only to Israel or to money (as Rep. Ilhan Omar suggested), how are we to react?
Do we hold to the warmth of our hearts, and try to quash our innate sense of disgust because somehow a recognition of our common humanity makes us better people? Are we allowed to feel contempt — but then draw the line at expressing it? Or if we express it, must we do so with as much grace as possible, in order to spare the feelings of others?
And if our guiding principle here is to avoid expressions of contempt, then how do we reestablish the guard rails of a decent society? What good does it do to disagree with, say, a racist or a xenophobe without an attempt to induce shame that burns through the sophistry and reflexive appeals to free speech that such people employ to shield their views from criticism?
Hypocrisy on this issue is, of course, rampant. Conservatives were once the greatest critics of “moral relativism,” the idea that there is no better or worse set of values, but today they are among its greatest practitioners. Meanwhile, the same liberals who once deplored the judgmentalism of the right have conveniently rediscovered existential principles, especially about the importance of presidential character.
We should be worthy of each other’s company
I am not arguing here for leaping at each other’s throats, either physically or rhetorically. There’s been enough of that, and I am as guilty as anyone else.
Sometimes, my expressions of contempt were an over-reaction to a political disagreement. (I don’t really hold anyone who wants a high marginal tax rate in contempt.) At other moments, I have been carried away, as we all can be, by my own sense of self-righteousness. And yes, I do have a thing about bare feet on airplanes.
But there have been moments when I have not only felt contempt but believed that it was more than appropriate, and necessary, to express it. Moore’s Senate candidacy was one of them.
Perhaps the real question is not how, or whether, we should express contempt, but rather whether we ourselves hold views that are contemptible. We all have the right to an opinion; we do not have the right to insist that others accept our opinions with kindness and good cheer.
The Emperor Aurelius warned us about judging each other. But he also warned us to be worthy of each other’s company: “Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.”
Good advice, even 2,000 years later.
Tom Nichols is a national security professor at the Naval War College, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise.” The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom
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