About RadicalCivility.Org

My name is Mark Grimsley. I'm an historian by trade, mostly of the Civil War era. For the past two years I've maintained a weblog concerning military history as an academic field.. I've found it a useful way to think through many of the issues involved in my professional work, and I've enjoyed the sense of community that comes from interacting with those who visit the blog (which typically receives 150-200 hits on any given day.

So when, a few months ago, I began to renew my exploration of faith after a long spiritual drought, creating a second blog for the purpose seemed like a natural step. I don't update it as often as I do my "professional blog," and I doubt I ever will. I have too many competing responsibilities. Nevertheless, RadicalCivility represents an important dimension of my spiritual life. The writing helps focus my thoughts, and the public nature of blogging gives me the chance to interact with others who share similar concerns.

Why "RadicalCivility"? The phrase occurred to me a year ago, when I was fretting about the polarized state of discourse in this country. Radio and TV talk show participants blast away at each other under the thin guise of discussing the issues of the day. Ordinary citizens do the same thing, and the tone is often no better among faith-based people who, presumably, ought to know better. We live in what Deborah Tannen has termed an "argument culture."

As a specialist in the Civil War era, I can hardly argue that things have never been worse. But they are bad enough, and I am tired of it. But how to get beyond it?

The most obvious problem is that if a civil public discourse were easy it would already be the norm.  The I-hate-you-I-hate-you-back model of public exchange is common because it works.  It meets people's individual needs to vent their spleens and it meets the needs of politicians, lobbyists and political activists to mobilize political support.  The most common political tool is the creation of fear.  People do not so much vote in favor of things as they vote against things.  In the American experience there is what has been called the "paranoid style" in politics.  The most common variety is the threat to liberty.  This goes back to the American Revolution, when the revolutionaries portrayed the British government and its policies as a threat to the liberties of colonists.  A half-generation later the Federalists portrayed the Democratic-Republicans as a threat to liberty and vice versa; the Whigs and Democrats played on the same theme in the 1830s and 1840s; the Democrats and Republicans did the same in the 1850s and 1860s, and of course enough Americans believed this rhetoric to spark a civil war in 1861.  I could multiply examples almost indefinitely.  Examples from our own day, like the culture wars, are too obvious to need elaboration.

To the politics of fear may be added the tendency to see debate in terms of winning and losing.  This model is explicitly promoted in nearly all high school debate clubs; it is used to measure presidential debates; it is of course the basis of our court system.  In court the stakes are the guilt or innocence of a defendant.  In presidential debates the stakes are election to an office.  But what purpose winning serves in everyday debate I cannot fathom.  What do you win?  Usually your "defeated" opponent, crushed by your devastating wit and knowledge, is simply humiliated and through humilation becomes more, not less, wedded to his own position.  All you really win is a boost to your own ego, and there are other, better ways to gain that.

Both the politics of fear and the win/lose model of debate very effectively close off honest discussion.  Stacking the deck, ad homimen attacks, verbal tricks, solipsism, and a host of other tactics that would not be tolerated in a high school term paper are the common currency of almost every political conversation.  Again, such tactics make sense if you want to gain election or block a given bill.  But why citizens would employ these methods among themselves is less obvious, because for the most part, deprived of the chance to ever weigh the issues independently, we effectively just parrot the opinions packaged for us by the political elite.

Not only do citizens consume--indeed, we're force-fed--these pre-packaged opinions in bumper stickers, slogans, and sound bites, often enough what passes for political thought takes the form of dreaming up our own bumper stickers, slogans, and sound bites.  Listen to those who call in to almost any politically-related radio talk show.  You'll see what I mean.

Yet it is hard, in such a climate, not to fight fire with fire. The aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach has a seductive intensity. By contrast, civility too easily seems bland and wishy washy. What is needed, I think, is civility, but a radical civility as bold and uncompromising as the argument culture.

To achieve that kind of civility is no easy task. Surely it requires a willingness to grow, to seek wisdom, and to display, as Christ is said to have done, both grace and truth. That kind of work is nothing if not spiritual. And a commitment to it is as much as I, a deeply wounded Christian, can muster, at least for the time being.

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RadicalCivility.org 2006