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Civility is not our Prime Directive

It is no secret that major Evangelical figures do not fare well when questioned or criticized on the level playing field of social media. And so 9Marks and The Gospel Coalition regularly put out pieces on lamenting about the negativity of social media. In the case of Samuel James’s latest piece for The Gospel Coalition, The Case for Civility, what starts off as a winsome lament about the impact of technology on personal relationships, can quickly devolve into an attack against opponents.

One possibility, I would submit, is that we’ve given up on something fundamental to genuine membership: civility. What if digital technologies and upward mobility have displaced and isolated us because we find their moral demands on our relationships much easier than the demands of true civility? What if the path to a more humane, more real, and spiritually healthier culture is the path toward self-denying, other-preferring practices of Christian civility?

For the first three paragraphs, James attempts to paint a picture of what humanity has lost since the widespread adoption of online relationships. Perhaps this is a less concise way to say that we say things online that we would not say in person, that the moral standards online are less demanding than in person relationships and therefore can never match the potential depths. These are adequate concerns if not overshadowed by the emphasis on civility.

It’s been troubling to me to witness the spectacle of journalists on social media announcing that “civility” is a deceptive moral equivocation that no one should bother trying. Denigrating civility is the new intellectual fashion, evidenced both by its growing chorus of critics and also by an increasingly uncivil political culture. Civility, some suggest, is just a way for powerful people to preserve the status quo. Those babbling about “civility” are really tone-policing, while using terms like “respect” and “free inquiry” to hold onto power or a comfortable status quo. Thus (the argument goes) we don’t need civility; we need people brave enough to do the moral thing, and brave enough to damn anyone who questions how they do it. 

This would have been a good time to have defined “civility” for the sake of his own argument. Instead he complains about the criticisms that calls for civility have received in the past. And from an opposing perspective, these critiques are legitimate. So he’s largely speaking against the argument that people like me would make.

The sharpest critics of civility say far more than they intend. The idea—that how you treat others is immaterial, in your moral quest for righteousness—drips with privilege. The only kind of people who can afford to go through life without civil norms of discourse are those who can structure their lives so as to not require meaningful interaction with anyone—in other words, the already wealthy or powerful.

He follows up his complaint against critics of civility with a Marxist critique that they are privileged. Samuel James goes on to call anti-civility arguments absurd because we would never expect or want a lack of civility in a public setting while providing hypothetical examples of customer service.

Civility doesn’t mean a milquetoast, customer-service countenance in every situation. But political or social activism doesn’t cancel the fundamental requirements of considerate, respectful behavior, simply for the fact that a democracy mediates its political process through social bodies—which civility preserves and a lack of civility rips apart.

It is wise to remind ourselves that we do not live in a democracy. We live in a republic on the brink of civil war. And for the side with the truth to practice more civility, as James implies of it, we would basically be setting aside our best arguments for nothing in return. We will still be called ists and phobes. A perfect example of this is Mitt Romney. The guy was as unprincipled as they come yet he was still called all the things in 2012 that Donald Trump was called in 2016. Donald Trump instead was less civil and won, whereas Romeny ran one of the worst presidential campaigns in GOP history. But at least he was civil.

Which was the better outcome? Civility and defeat or incendiary rhetoric and victory. Most definitely the latter. This is not an ends justify the means argument. Rather it is a Prime Directive argument. In Star Trek, the non interference principle of the development of primitive peoples is the priority above all else. Every officer swears an oath to die before violating this principle, and indeed it has definitely led to quite a few deaths. But the Federation made clear its moral priority from the beginning.

The Prime Directive of the church is laid out in the Great Commission. And we have had many moral debates about how to follow this. In politics, we should operate with a Prime Directive, also. Life, liberty, and property are certainly worthy candidates of a political Prime Directive for Christians. Justice also, not to ever be confused or conflated with social justice, of course. In this, Christian liberty can be granted. However, civility is a pitiful Prime Directive. Civility says “let’s make abortion safe, legal, and rare.” It does not label it baby killing or murder. Civility calls terrorists overseas, “Syrian Rebels.” Civility calls foreign invaders “undocumented immigrants.” Instead of calling them pedophiles, we still call transvestites who perform readings to children in libraries “drag queens.”

Within the church, we have been far too civil in tolerating false teachers, instead of naming them and dealing accordingly. We have for too long tolerated heretical ideology ad have been unwilling to discipline it according to Matthew 18.

Perhaps a more concise illustration of this problem is the movie Demolition Man where Sylvester Stallone wakes up decades later in the future to find a society so civil, it’s effeminate, tyrannical, and deceitful. And that is what we are seeing in the church and in politics. Civility can distort the truth. James ends with this note:

Civility is necessary because flourishing human communities require its practices and attitude. The only way to survive without civility is to survive in a way that marginalizes deep human connection. Perhaps that’s why we lost thick social ties to begin with. At some point, between the hum of individual mobility and the soft blue glow of digital depersonalization, we forgot how to know each other. We can remember again. But we may have to die to ourselves first.

It’s not that civility is bad, but we need to be honest about the situation. The terms of civility are guided by political correctness instead of truth or love. Pretending otherwise is naive. America existed for around a hundred years without a political left wing, and as a staunch conservative, I recognize nothing positive left wing politics bring to the table. The communist would agree that people like myself merely stand in the way of their utopia and have a long genocidal history of exterminating accordingly. Civility maintains the facade that both sides need the other, and that has not been true in several decades. And we should not pretend like conservatism and socialism have anything to gain from mutual cooperation. One of these ideologies will be blotted out. And that is why civility is falling apart as Samuel James sees it. And until this worldview steel cage match is over civility will neither be had nor should we necessarily seek it, as it will ultimately come into conflict with a legitimate Christian political or ecclesiastical Prime Directive.


9 Responses

  1. Great article. Again, its a classic Marxist tactic to change definitions. Or rather, only allow the politically correct defininition.
    What social media has done is just revealed what ugly creatures the fallen man IS. Its just pulled the curtain back, similar to what Trump has done with our government.
    And when the left pulls quotes of the right using the term democracy in the past, it was referring to the countries with democratic institutions vs. Communism during the cold war. Nowadays, its extremely important we draw the distinction, which the right seems to understand and the left does not, that pure democracies FAIL (see Greece) and that the constitution tries to protect our republic from devolving into mob rule. But those at the top of the left know this and use it strategically, believing Americans will vote the death of the constitution and their republic away.

    1. Where have you been?

      “There is nothing new under the sun.” Ecc. 1:9

      If it took “social media” to see “what ugly creatures the fallen man IS.” you must not be much over 5-years old.

      I’m guessing your first thought about that sentence is: How uncivil BlueCat57 is.

      I know my style and most people don’t like it. Tough toenails. That’s me.

      I’m guessing not too many people liked Christ’s style and thought it “uncivil”. Do you think that He only turned the tables over in the Synagogues just once? Or He only called Jewish leaders names a couple of times?

      And wouldn’t you call the disagreements between Peter and Paul “uncivil”? Or was it John? Probably all of them.

      No, most people know how “ugly” humans are from a very early age. And have since Cain and Able.

      1. I’m referring to general public realizing how evil and sick man is as a result of. Of course, We already know this. Thats why I called man ‘fallen’.

    2. It is unlikely that I will ever find the articles I’ve read that identify the “reasons” that the writers of the Constitution included each protection.
      I have an unfinished document in which I’ve listed the 29 “grievances” in the Declaration and their modern equivalent. I did it during the Obama regime but I’m guessing I could identify a modern equivalent under Trump.
      The one I do remember are I believe the 4th and 5th Amendment protections that are part of the judicial process. Some were written specifically to counter the “Star Chamber”.
      There were several others. The more I learn about the “whys” of the Constitution the more amazed I am with the knowledge and foresight of the Founders.

  2. “This would have been a good time to have defined “civility” for the sake of his own argument.”

    Stop it! You can’t steal my ideas and get away with it. One of the first things I try to (but never) do, is define terms the way I define them.

    And don’t get me started on the number of times I have not gotten a reply to a comment that includes: Please define (fill in the word).

  3. “Within the church, we have been far too civil in tolerating false teachers, instead of naming them and dealing accordingly. We have for too long tolerated heretical ideology ad have been unwilling to discipline it according to Matthew 18.”


  4. “Perhaps a more concise illustration of this problem is the movie Demolition Man … And that is what we are seeing in the church and in politics.”

    May I suggest “Idiocracy” the movie instead?

  5. OK, last one:

    “America existed for around a hundred years without a political left wing”

    I’m going to ask you to define that and provide proof. The Federalist Papers and most likely the newspapers of the day debated the issues. Very “uncivilly”.

    Some wanted to remain with Britain, others not. Most were in the middle and just wanted to be left alone.

    After the nation was formed, there were again groups on both ends of a spectrum – big, central government controlling the individual’s life and choices vs the smallest government possible – again with the majority in the middle that wanted just enough government so that they could have life and liberty and pursue their happiness without interference from government or other citizens.

    1. Good question. So first I define the political spectrum as both linear and absolute running from no government on the right and total government on the left. And since to ends exist so does a middle. Left of center is left wing and right of center is right wing. Several decades after America’s founding, the political parties were still left of this center even if one party was further right than the other. The Federalist Papers are a good example of this. Jefferson argued for the necessity of a Bill of Rights while Hamilton argued that the protection of certain rights will invite the regulation of those rights. This is an extremely conservative debate similar to conservatives debating the merits of a Convention of States.

      This also maintains that a conservative yesterday is a conservative today. Example: conservatism was opposed to welfare programs prior to their enactment so getting rid of these programs would be the conservative position. Republicans are rightfully criticized for supporting positions they opposed 10 years ago which is a shift to the left.

      Progressivism is a very universal ideology that is to the right of socialism. Obama’s “Yes We Can” is an international motto for progressivism. In socialist Venezuela, Guiado had a Spanish variation of it in his election against Maduro. By comparison, Maduro is right wing but he’s not actually right wing. The Tories in the UK wanted Brexit which is a right wing position but they also heavily favor socialized medicine, abortion, corona fascism, etc. In fact, I struggle to find a country that has a major right wing party (perhaps they exist, I have not researched every country.)

      That’s a brief explanation drawing from various pieces I’ve written over the years.

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