Civility, Unity, Tolerance And Other Dangerous Terms

Last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in a pair of cases that, as Sarah Posner wrote, “raised religious challenges to the contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act.” The question before the court, in essence, is whether a secular, for-profit corporation can impose its religious beliefs on employees. Commenting on the arguments of corporations seeking such religious exemptions, Fox News host Martha MacCallum asserted that all these employers are asking for is “tolerance of their religious belief.”

Which seems entirely reasonable. After all, who would argue against tolerance?

In these days of political polarization—something we are urged to see as unequivocally negative—much of the public discussion, particularly when it comes to religion, has shifted from what is said to how it is said. If we cannot agree on controversial matters, the logic goes, we may at least agree on certain rules of discursive etiquette—on the importance of values such as civility, unity, and tolerance, for instance.

This is, in theory, a good thing. We all want our fellow citizens to commit to strong public discourse. In practice, however, this stylistic shift may actually do substantive damage. Friendly speech often lacks the strength to achieve its discursive goals, and so may serve as a useful tool of the status quo. As in the case above, charges of incivility, divisiveness, and intolerance have recently been utilized to actively inhibit political progress.


The vitriol of the Tea Party years, with its infamous town hall strategy, has prompted ubiquitous calls for civil discourse. Whatever you think about a given issue, you are urged to express your view in a calm, civil fashion. Again, on paper this is an admirable mission, but we can’t embrace civility as an absolute standard without forfeiting something in the way of urgency and rhetorical force. The world is full of grave injustice, and injustice rarely lends itself to tranquil tones. Muzzled by the strictures of civility, authors and activists may be unable to capture the seriousness of the obstacles they face.

Worse, insistence on civility may empower defenders of injustice to shift the public focus from deeds to words. Instead of talking about the practical effects of discriminatory policies, for instance, we end up talking about the disgraceful “incivility” of those who assail them with candor. In a column critiquing the arguments of same-sex marriage supporters, Heritage Foundation Fellow Ryan T. Anderson offers a case in point:

The principal strategy of the forces that have worked for 20 years to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions has been cultural intimidation – bullying others by threatening the stigma of being “haters” and “bigots.”

Marriage re-definers don’t tend to say what many opponents have said, that this is a difficult question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree. No, they’ve said anyone who disagrees with them is the equivalent of a racist. They’ve sent a clear message: If you stand up for marriage, we will, with the help of our friends in the media, demonize and marginalize you.

This kind of grotesque incivility is toxic for any democratic community.

Anderson’s claim that “marriage re-definers” trade in demonization and marginalization is striking given that gay rights movements have spent over four decades struggling against vicious demonization from the Religious Right, being rhetorically and institutionally marginalized to a degree entirely out of proportion to the slights Anderson’s allies face today. Yet Anderson’s focus on the civility of speech in the present allows him to simply ignore this history and treat the discussion like it was a purely academic exercise conducted on a perfectly even field. It also allows him to skirt the legal question at the heart of the debate. As long as we are talking about the incivility of speech, we won’t be addressing the far more consequential incivility of regressive laws.

Andrew Sullivan has made the case that supporters of marriage equality should avoid accusations of “hate” and “bigotry,” noting that the debate is winnable without inflammatory speech. I sympathize with this position, but context matters, and even civil arguments may acknowledge the often ugly exigencies to which they respond.


With the emergence of unity as an unquestioned virtue, divisiveness is thus cast—alongside incivility—as a purely negative quality. Here again, there are countless cases where division is a bad thing, where divisive arguments have been embellished and over-sold, usually en route to forming coalitions and mobilizing voters. But there are also cases where important and necessary arguments may be condemned as divisive, often in the interests of power.

Recently, to take one example, Rachel Held Evans pointed out that the line-up of speakers at the evangelical Nines conference included 112 names, only four of which were women. The next day, after that perfectly legitimate criticism was labeled divisive, Evans made this astute observation:

[W]hen I began writing about gender equality in evangelicalism, it became apparent to me that no matter how careful my tone, no matter how reasoned my arguments, no matter how gentle my critique, my work would inevitably be characterized as “divisive.”

This is a common response to those of us who speak from the margins of evangelical Christianity about issues around gender, race, and sexuality, and it’s an effective one because it appeals to something most of us value deeply: Christian unity.

Paul Pastor had criticized Evans for noticing, then asked his readers to join him in a prayer for Christian unity. Echoing Anderson’s comments on the “bullying” of marriage equality opponents, Pastor draws on a shared value of healthy public speech to distract attention from a case of institutional discrimination. And, like Anderson, Pastor adopts a tone of affront and injury, as though profoundly dismayed by this unmannerly violation. But here again, there are some things more divisive than critical speech, and the Nines’ exclusionary guest list is a stark example. By exposing this division, Evans has actually cultivated grounds for greater inclusion and unity in the future.


Long resented by figures on the political-religious right, the charge of intolerance has recently been appropriated and deployed by those same figures. Drawing on D.A. Carson’s recent book, for instance, Mark Driscoll claims that there are now two types of tolerance: an “old” version, assuming that

(1) there is objective truth that can be known; (2) various people, groups, and perspectives each think they know what that objective truth is; and (3) as people/groups disagree, dialogue, and debate their conflicting views of the truth, everyone involved will have an opportunity to learn, grow, change, and possibly arrive together at the truth

and a “new” version, assuming that

(1) there is no objective truth that can be known; (2) various people, groups, and perspectives do not have the truth but only what they believe to be the truth; and (3) various people, groups, and perspectives should not argue and debate their disagreements because there is no truth to be discovered and to assume otherwise only leads to needless conflicts and prejudices.’

Similar to the appropriations of civility and unity in its use of a generally progressive terminology, Driscoll also turns intolerance on the defenders of tolerance, accusing them of being intolerant toward his intolerance. What’s unique here is Driscoll’s attempt to impose a strange, convoluted new definition of the term. Though not the first to try this strategy, he’s uniquely adept at constructing a strawman argument sure to baffle most readers. Critical audiences will quickly recognize this tactic, but Driscoll’s sympathetic readers are likely to find it both reassuring and vindicating. By conjuring this purely fantastical “new” understanding of tolerance, and by basing it in a purely fantastical moral relativism, Driscoll assures his followers that tolerance is a self-defeating aim, no less paradoxical than the old axiom about God creating a rock so heavy even he could not lift it.

The core effect of this move is consistent with the previous examples. The “new” tolerance, deployed by proponents of marriage equality, gender equality and other movements he opposes, is dismissed as little more than a manipulative trick, and Driscoll appoints himself defender of the old, real tolerance. From this position, he can assert his belief in moral absolutes while touting the importance of “dialogue,” keeping the focus squarely on the manner in which ideas are exchanged rather than on the policy goals his belief is called to justify. Much like Anderson, Pastor, and most recently Liz Cheney, Driscoll wants to keep us talking about talking, stressing the legitimacy of disagreement rather than the troublesome political action his arguments always seem to defend.

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