Guest opinion: On civility and power — Part I

  • Wednesday, November 7, 2018 1:30am
  • Opinion

What is, or should be, the relationship between civility and power? Is civility compatible with, or even possible in, situations perceived as a struggle for power? Does civil discourse require “neutrality?” How does the loss of civility in our political discourse affect civic engagement … and what does it mean for a community?

These are difficult questions. Answering any of them could — and has — produced volumes of research, intellectual and philosophical inquiry, examination, and analysis leading to a broad range of judgments and perspectives. The things that divide us as Americans seem to grow more pronounced and profound while those that unite us appear fewer, dimmer, more distant.

Do we now see ourselves engaged in a struggle for power where civility and civil discourse are seen as deadly liabilities or weaknesses?

In the “First Words” column of the New York Times Magazine, various essayists examine “what language reveals” about our nation, our society, our culture at present. The October 16, 2018 “First Words” column asked, “Does this moment in American history call for us to speak with greater “nuance,” or with greater calculation?”

As one summary put it, the main point of the column is that “Focusing on subtleties makes sense when you’re engaged in a conversation. It may be less useful when that conversation turns into a battle.” That is a fair, but far from complete description.

What struck me most was the author’s main premise: that nuance is of little use because “politics is primarily about achieving power.” When he later poses the question whether the legislature is “a place for deliberation—for thinking through problems and solving them via compromise” or one “to use every tool at your disposal to thwart the opposition,” the clear implication is that it is the latter.

He then suggests that this extends beyond politics and asserts that in “countless places where Americans speak to one another” we aren’t really engaged in deliberative discussion at all and that we’re shocked when we learn that, in reality, “We are in a raw struggle for power.”

Now just stop and think about that for a moment: What does it mean if politics is primarily about achieving power and that within and beyond the context of politics all of us, if we’re really honest about it, are simply engaged in “a raw struggle for power?”

Civil behaviors

Is it any surprise that civility and civil discourse are in retreat as political — or even basic social — behaviors? If your goal is to “thwart your opposition” by any means, doesn’t that require that you forego civility and civil discourse as inherent weaknesses? If your basic premise is that in a political (or social) context, you are in a “raw struggle for power,” is it any wonder that you would relinquish civility and civil discourse as dangerous disadvantages?

What kind of “conversation” is even possible if every disagreement is seen as gladiatorial combat with the absolute need to dominate, to crush, to eviscerate one’s “foe” in the arena?

Under such conditions why would anyone want to be civil? Of what value is “civil discourse,” which can only be deliberative, and must rely on reason, reflection, a willingness to give fair consideration to other perspectives, and a commitment to understanding the bases for disagreement (or even agreement)?

Is it not readily apparent that this mindset provides the cognitive and emotional framework for demonizing one’s opponents, for seeing them as deserving of such characterization and such treatment?

“Nuance,” as a recognition and appreciation of complexity and of subtle but important shades of difference, is inseparable from reason. Nuance is an essential part of the deliberative approach to solving problems, particularly complicated ones.

In both the political and the broader social context, it is a defining trait of a society that adheres to civil conduct—that has chosen to frame its discourse as something other than, and superior to, “a raw struggle for power.”

Sound reasoning

Civility and civil discourse do not require neutrality, however. In this context neutrality is often misconstrued or misrepresented as being wholly impartial, nonaligned (or nonpartisan), uninvolved, or detached; it is confused with some key attributes of sound reasoning or good critical thinking — intellectual empathy and humility, fair-mindedness, confidence in reason.

You can be a passionate advocate for an idea, a point of view, a policy, or a piece of legislation, and still be a paragon of civility and civil discourse, but if and only if you’re engaged in sound reasoning.

A signal accomplishment of the Enlightenment was the elevation of reason over force. The American experiment is a direct result. That the efforts of Enlightenment leaders to see this manifest across every intellectual endeavor, especially politics, often failed or were painfully inconsistent when put into practice is not evidence to abandon reason and return to force as the determinant of who achieves or exercises power.

That the United States has often failed at, or been painfully inconsistent in, realizing its ideals as the culmination of Enlightenment political thought is not evidence we should abandon that pursuit.

If we are to reverse the course we are on now, as a nation, a society, we need to reject the cynicism and despair inherent in seeing our political or social institutions as nothing more than places where we engage in “raw struggles for power.”

We must never accept, applaud or embrace winning at all costs, ends justifying means, might making right, as standards for defining norms in political (or social) behavior.

CommunityPlus is a group of people whose mission is to generate a series of broad, inclusive conversations that lead to a shared understanding of who we are and a shared vision of how to make the community even better. Email to

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