Intellectual Tolerance

The desire to be civil, in its most robust form, is a desire to be moral, to treat others humanely, with respect, toleration and consideration. But if one wants to be moral, one must also know that in order to be good, sometimes one cannot be nice. This dilemma holds for making democratic based arguments as well.

The imperative to treat others civilly is never total because sometimes a moral good is won in rudeness. To display disrespect or enmity, to mock or shun, to insult or shame – these can be moral gestures. For even as we need to respect humanity, valuing human beings can sometimes require disrespecting some of them, precisely the ones who deny or damage our shared humanity. To show such people respect and consideration might let them have their way a bit, let them continue in their destructive ways.

I believe that righteous incivility is sometimes better than civility and that it can indicate a pattern of reasoning we morally need. Civility typically requires conformity to social conventions that symbolically signal prosocial values; we follow customs of courtesy to display respect, consideration and toleration for each other.

Democracies demand engagement, especially intellectual and argumentative engagement. Argument and disagreement are the “stuff” of democracy and the playing field in which battles take place. It’s just shy of impossible to live in and value democracy as just described without offending someone. It is perilously easy to make an argumentative point – one that is presented honestly and clearly and without undue passion – and still appear intolerant, uncivil, or just plain mean.

Stanley Fish has written eloquently about the consequences of students who are blind to anything but offenses when they are exposed to arguments alien to their own perspectives. Some students are so concerned with micro-aggressions and “safe spaces” (that would be spaces where there is no vigorous discussion or intellectual challenges) that they demand simple differences of opinion to be sufficient reason for sanctioning the speech of the other. The students claim that they have a right not to be exposed to unpleasant opinions, or perspectives that make them uncomfortable.

Well, democracy is advanced citizenship. You need experience, training, and practice. And a cultural recognition of these qualities is less clear and intense as it used to be. Subject matter in high schools and colleges used to include more rhetoric and argumentation along with clear demonstrations of the value of debate. Such instruction fostered mental strength and resilience.

There will never be simple categories composed of definitions beyond reproach when it comes to defining hate speech, acceptable free speech, or the limits of tolerance and instability. And controversies, boundaries, and responsibilities will always be a little fuzzy when it comes to expectations about their definitions. But none of this makes for a slippery post truth world that has no meaning. On the contrary, sharper sense of meaning will emerge as a result of engaged and tolerant interaction. The solution, then, is equivalent to the problem; what is called for is more speech and passionate engagement.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 15, 2020, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is very good. But it is also important to realize that most of the time being nice is a good way to be ‘good’. I think so at least.
    I try to be nice. I hope I generally succeed at that. But it is easy to slide into making sarcastic comments and things like that that are not really very nice at all. And have nothing to do with being good or justice or whatever.
    If I may ask- what prompted this post?

  2. Nothing in particular prompted the post other than thinking about the limits of civility and tolerance. This is because of the ethical quandary with respect to suppressing freedom of expression in the name of a higher good.

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