Tolerance and civility, not love, will heal our society

Tolerance and civility, not love, will heal our society
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In "Love Your Enemies," author and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks offers a recipe for healing a country divided: “Go find someone with whom you disagree; listen thoughtfully; and treat him or her with respect and love. The rest will flow naturally from there.”

We build a good society, Brooks argues, the way we build a good marriage: through love.

Brooks is right that how we speak to one another matters. The language of contempt dissolves trust. Contempt drives out any impulse we might have toward empathy and understanding, and it replaces reasoned argument with litmus tests for ideological purity.

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Moving toward greater empathy, understanding and intellectual openness will improve the quality of our public discourse and make us healthier, happier and better human beings.

But the shift that Brooks is championing will not be inspired by the exalted virtue of love. It will be the fruit of the less-exalted tempered virtues of civility and tolerance.

A defender of Brooks’ thesis might say that I’m splitting hairs — that it doesn’t matter if we use the language of love or the language of civility and tolerance. But words matter.

If we uncritically accept love as the appropriate standard for the good society and toss aside civility and tolerance as “garbage standards,” we set ourselves up for failure. 

To begin, as an expectation for the broader society, love is simply too tall an order. We learned this long ago from moral philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith, who observed that there are cognitive limits to how far we can extend our sympathy.

Love that’s genuine requires close-in local knowledge that we simply cannot cultivate beyond a relatively small circle of family and friends. 

The good news, though, is that love isn’t needed to achieve the good society. On this point, Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek offered a helpful distinction between the social norms that are essential to the small intimate order of known family and friends and the norms essential to the extended order of the broader society. 

The right standard for the small band may very well be love. It’s in this sphere that we have enough local knowledge to attend to particular needs in nuanced ways. But, as Hayek argued, if we apply this standard to society as a whole, we will destroy it. 

Brooks tells us that expectations of civility and tolerance are too low of a bar; that if we want “true unity” in America, we must find our “shared whys.” But unity is the wrong goal.

A country of self-governing citizens is not one of shared ends; it’s one of shared rules: individual liberty, equality before the law, property rights and impersonal rules of contract, for example.

The cultural norms that correspond to such rules are those like civility and tolerance, norms that can be applied generally, without a great deal of close-in, local knowledge. 

Expectations of civility and tolerance are admittedly cold and impersonal. That’s why they are not sufficient standards for, say, a happy family life. But it’s their impersonal quality that make them appropriate standards for the broader society.

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As cultural norms, civility and tolerance allow us to pursue our divergent ends without checking in with one another, without any expectation that we are aligning our beliefs and actions with some shared purpose.

Once we commit to unity — even as a direction and aspiration — the individual who diverges from the pack will always be seen as impeding progress toward the ideal. And therein lies a recipe for tyranny.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it’s the expectation of civility and tolerance that lays the groundwork for the good society, one characterized by pluralism and human flourishing.

By not expecting more than we can offer, by not insisting on love and unity of purpose, we leave the cultural space contestable, open to countless conversations, out of which we have the best chance of forging bonds of mutual respect and trust.

Brooks is right that if we are going to overcome the culture of contempt, we need better conversational ethics, such as a commitment to humility, respect and knowledge-seeking curiosity in the face of disagreement. But we don’t need love to cultivate these practices. We need the tempered virtues of civility and tolerance.

Emily Chamlee-Wright is president of the Institute for Humane Studies. She formerly served as provost at Washington College and the Elbert Neese professor of Economics and Associate Dean at Beloit College.