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Civility and public discourse

| Friday, April 28, 2017

Recently in the Letter to the Editor section of The Observer, there was an article written in response to a previously published opinion piece. I came across the following in that article: “It will always be a painful truth that there are people out there like you, [Ms./Mr. so and so], who oppose the right to [such and such].” What concerns me is neither the person nor the issue prompting this response, but the form of the response itself. For most of the article, the writer seems deliberate about addressing the person she is challenging (and she addresses him directly throughout) in a respectful manner. However, it appears that in the concluding paragraph she cannot resist adding the above invective against her opponent.

What I take issue with here is the blatant lack of civility expressed by the writer. The phrase, “It will always be a painful truth that there are people out there like you,” could reasonably imply, “The earth would be a better place if you were not a living inhabitant thereof.” Though I am inclined to believe (or at least to hope) that a student of the University of Notre Dame would never intentionally make such a suggestion concerning a fellow student, those expressing themselves in a public forum must consider the implications of what they write. Moreover, we must recognize the danger in addressing an opponent instead of an opinion. It is all too easy to lapse into attacking our opponent instead of the view we oppose.

Although it is not a matter of rights or law to show civility toward someone with whom we disagree — I have no right to have my opinions accepted or even respected and freedom of speech means that I am not immune from criticism of myself or my opinions — it is a matter of morality. By civility, I mean the civic virtue (one pertaining to the behaviors of persons as members of a particular society) concerning the proper ways of expressing criticism toward those with whom we disagree. There are two motivations for endorsing civility as a civic virtue. First, as the American philosopher John Rawls describes in his book Political Liberalism, we live in a society where people have drastically different opinions. Additionally, people will never unanimously agree on most matters. Rawls expresses this sentiment succinctly as the fact of “intractable pluralism.” If we wish to have a united yet pluralistic society, there must be a way to mediate between these differences peacefully. The second reason for endorsing civility is because it is a necessary condition of solidarity. I consider it obvious that it is better for Americans to work together toward the common goal of a just and productive society than to fall deeper into a bitter rivalry with one another. For a society to have both plurality of opinions and solidarity, civility in public discourse between those of differing opinions must be fostered.

One practical implication of civility which the quote I introduced at the beginning of this article disregards is the aversion to making ad hominem attacks in arguing for our beliefs and opinions. In this sense, ad hominem attacks include both those meant to discredit another’s position and rhetoric meant to belittle an opponent morally or intellectually. Though we may rightly say a position is immoral or irrational, to attack those who hold that view as such is usually uncivil whether or not such criticisms of them are true. Civility may not be a requisite for a society to exist, but it is necessary for a society based on and committed to mutual respect. I take it for granted that this is the type of society most of us would like to live in.

Ean Maloney 


April 27

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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