Unity and civility in America
Repeatedly calling for “unity” in his inaugural address, President Biden nevertheless did not explain what he meant by the term. Given the state of public discourse in the United States, “civility” would have been a more appropriate theme for the speech.
America has never been unified ideologically and was founded as a constitutional republic to prevent majoritarianism. As a human rights advocate defending religious and political minorities, I tighten up at calls for “unity.” Political unity is what you find in fascist and other totalitarian, one-party states that oppose liberal individualism. Indeed, the word “fascism” derives from the Latin “fascis” — sticks bound together to form a bundle. The symbol on the dime is not that, but a torch of liberty.
From the time of America’s founding, when her leaders have called for unity, they usually have meant either the need for strong attachment by individual states to the federal government, or the need for American citizens to pull together to meet common challenges, no matter how different their political views and backgrounds may be.
Toward the end of his speech, Biden finally moved in this direction. He spoke of “uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness” — that is, not being united, but cooperating as members of a team.
Biden also suggested that unity in America is derived from shared moral principles. He referred to St. Augustine: “Saint Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.”
Biden bungled the delivery of this passage from his speechwriter’s original text, but — to his great credit — he was trying to show that those principles transcend political differences, and thus should be a basis for moral unity.
Yet there was plenty in the speech to suggest that by “unity,” the president meant agreement with his political program. He said that “without unity, there is no peace. … No progress. … No nation, only a state of chaos. … Unity is the path forward.” Did he mean that if we disagree, we will cause conflict and chaos? A Washington Post reporter, in annotations to the text published by the newspaper, interpreted the passage as purely political, noting that such unity would be difficult given congressional election results.
The Post reporter was right, given the gap between Biden’s largely progressive agenda and the more conservative political principles embraced by virtually half the American people and their elected representatives. But that does not mean we cannot put aside our differences and deal with pressing practical problems.
This will require not unity, but civility. According to University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils, who died in 1995, civility is “a belief which affirms the possibility of the common good … a virtue expressed in action on behalf of the whole society.” Shils wrote that civility is the attitude that “consensus about the maintenance of the order of society” should exist alongside “conflicts of interests and ideals” that exist in a diverse liberal democracy. Civility refers to the self-restraint of passions “with which interests and ideals are pursued.”
Biden likely was referring to civility when he admonished, “Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. … We must end this uncivil war.”
Despite the attempt at cleverness indicated by the last phrase, what the president said was right on. As our Founders understood, without tolerance of religious, political, ethnic and cultural differences — indeed, without civility — American society degenerates into a boiling vat of prejudice and animosity. The enemy of civility is ideology. Ideology, according to Shils, means “a set of ostensibly systematized beliefs, referring to all aspects of life, and asserted with dogmatic fervor and moral rigorism.” But especially since the first years of this century, too many issues have become politicized. Today in America, even food choices and zip codes are seen as symbols of adherence to deeply embraced political value systems.
Biden gives the impression of a man trying to serve two incompatible masters — civility and ideology. Let us hope our new president will help us, by his example and leadership, to rise above our differences, and will not try to force his will on behalf of a political agenda that lacks a broad consensus, as he and President Obama repeatedly did in the past. Let us hope that by saying “unity,” he meant “civility.”