Mad, Yes

0115-bks-ivorytower-blog427-v3As we approach our 8,000th post on this platform we realize that for the nearly six years we have been posting there was plenty of hopeful, helpful news related to community, collaboration and conservation–the themes we committed ourselves to at  the outset.

Times seem different now, to state the obvious. And yes we are “mad” about what is happening around us. Madly determined. It will take discipline to remain focused and find the news that fits our purpose here. But we intend to.

The point has not been to ignore the bad news, of which there has been plenty in recent years, but to share a few notices each day that highlight better news. Or possible solutions. The spirit of our intent, which has been to support “the fight” as needed but remain civil to the end, is captured well in this book review:

How to Be Civil in an Uncivil World


This solution has a paradoxical cast. The whole point of civility, you might think, is to have a consensus, not on any particular issue of debate, but on the manners that govern disagreement. For Bybee, though, that is a misguided belief. Ultimately, civility is about establishing the rules of “social belonging”: Whose views and interests merit consideration? That is a quintessentially contestable question. Bybee himself favors “more inclusive and egalitarian” conceptions of civility. But there are also hierarchical conceptions that require a social pecking order, like that of Warren Farrell’s men’s rights movement. For Bybee, that broader notions of respect aren’t universal is less a sign of civility’s weakness than a reminder that there is political work to be done.

This view is intended to be hardheaded and unsentimental, but the political theorist Teresa M. Bejan would presumably find Bybee’s conception of civility, rooted as it is in ideas of respect, no less idealistic. In her penetrating and sophisticated study MERE CIVILITY: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Harvard University, $45), Bejan champions an even harder-headed view, that of the 17th-century religious radical Roger Williams. His conception of “mere civility” was based on “mutual contempt” rather than mutual respect. As the founder of the famously inclusive colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Williams understood firsthand that a tolerant society was not necessarily “a pleasant, harmonious or particularly peaceful place.” He himself tolerated Jews, American Indian “pagans,” Muslims, Catholics and myriad Protestant sects, but not because, like some proto-multiculturalist, he wanted to celebrate or dignify their differences. Instead, Williams worried that if these groups (which “he found most abhorrent”) were excluded from public life and common conversation, he wouldn’t be able to convert them from their strange and filthy ways.

With civility like this, you might ask, who needs rudeness? But the virtue of Williams’s view comes into focus, Bejan contends, when contrasted with those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two other 17th-century thinkers who sought to understand how a tolerant society would work. Hobbes feared that strident expressions of disagreement would threaten the diversity of views in society (much as hate speech is now thought to do), so he advocated an ethic of “civil silence,” or public discretion: People could differ privately in their opinions as much as they wanted but should not openly dispute one another. Locke, by contrast, wanted to preserve public debate, but worried that too much diversity of opinion might jeopardize productive disagreement (the sort of concern campus speech codes now reflect). So he urged an ethic of “mutual charity,” which required people to cultivate at least a minimal appreciation for the views of their opponents, or else be disqualified from debate. Both thinkers, in other words, imagined bringing about a tolerant society via suppression or exclusion — the very forces you would think a tolerant society would want to avoid…

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