Two hundred and forty-two years ago, the men who founded the country did something supremely uncivil.
It was insurrectionary. It was impolite. It was revolutionary.
They reached a point where they could no longer take it, a point where the dictates of agreement and acquiescence were so clearly exceeded by more urgent priorities, that they told the king to go pound sand.
Thus the nation was formed in a burst of incivility.
During the same period, the men who founded the country did something rather … civil. They reached “common ground” on an issue of great division: slavery. They worked out a middle way between two seemingly unresolvable positions. It’s the political ideal, right? Hurray for compromise.
Except there is no common ground between the poles on the question of slavery. When you yield, you yield all. So, a clause written by Thomas Jefferson decrying slavery (and, yes, the ironies there are manifold) in a first draft of the Constitution was omitted to secure the support of slave states. Several years later, Congress would reach one of the worst, most perverse compromises in history, when it agreed to count enslaved Africans as three-fifths of a person. Those are but two of many examples of the ways in which deference to slave owners and slave states poisoned many of the early decisions of the nation.
The compromises were deeply, morally compromising – they put feet of clay on the ethical statuary of the nation, and built contradictions between the country’s ideals and its practices that took decades and a civil war to resolve officially, and whose resonances remain tragically visible in American society today.
This Fourth of July, as we consider our uncivil and contentious political scene – one in which even discussions of the issue of incivility are sharply uncivil – I hope we can remember that civility and politeness and compromise are important but limited principles. We should value, but not worship, them, particularly at times when moral urgency calls people to demonstrate another crucial, fundamental principle of this great, free nation: dissent.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke directly to this dynamic – the conflict between civility and justice – in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” when he wrote that the greatest stumbling block to freedom for black Americans was “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice …”
For most of us, having a friendly political chat about jailing the children of asylum seekers at the border presents a similar conflict: order versus justice. For most of us, the actions undertaken in our name by a government telling daily lies about it from official podiums call for something more than giving a respectful hearing to those lies, or serving hors d’oeuvres to the liars.
No, if someone is crying about civility right now and they’re not starting, ending and focusing 88 percent of their argument on the president’s words and actions and the consequences of them, then you know that civility isn’t their main concern. You know that order is being elevated above justice.
Sure, people should be nice to each other. Generally speaking, civility and compromise are important. A diverse nation cannot succeed over time without them. But civility and compromise in the face of the morally repugnant is morally repugnant itself. Accepting a lie as just one of many valid sides in a civil debate is to accept lies as the friendly equal of truth.
Civility is important, but sometimes dissent is more so. People will draw this line in different places, of course, but I doubt that anyone alive would disagree that there is such a line. We are surely seeing a lot of incivility these days, and plenty of us have, I’m sure, erred by the lights of Emily Post. Plenty of it has been deplorable. But the questions we’re arguing over are vital, fundamental – they reflect on what we think about the moral nature of the country itself.
Order is clashing with justice.
Our country, which celebrates its birth today, was not built primarily out of politeness and even-tempered good manners. It was built from the hard material of argument and debate and battle over ideals, one in which we sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong.
Sometimes we got it right when we were at our least civil. And sometimes we got it wrong – very, very wrong – when we were at our most civil.