Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—
For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse.
Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.”
Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:
This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.
We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.
What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.
Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.
Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.
I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”
I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that.
Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.
Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.
I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance?
The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.
Justice and Injustice
“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8.
I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well.
This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.
Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.
Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.
Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.
God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at.
You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.
Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)
Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.
High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be.
“O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?”
Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer