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.