We’re all familiar with the scene. It’s Easter dinner. Endless foodstuffs. Flowing wine. Echoing laughter. And then, “Did you hear about Glenn Beck’s new book about the latest United Nations Agenda 21 efforts to spread socialism globally? Can you believe they’re getting away with this!?” demands Aunt Edna.
According to conventional wisdom, when a controversial topic like this is introduced, you have a few options: immediately change the topic, feign a lack of interest, simply smile and listen and nod, or, for the bold and even-keeled, ask benign questions. After all, the last thing anyone wants at the dinner table is an argument!
This scenario is not only hilariously illustrated by this Saturday Night Live sketch, but is also straight from Dale Carnegie’s maxims for success in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”: “The only way to win an argument is avoid having one.” Yet is this—shutting down disagreement for fear of offending others—always what true civility dictates? I think not.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd condemned the “pompous and often vapid niceness brigade,” asserting that “all quarrels are not petty. Sometimes quarrels are about big things, and it’s an actual privilege to take a side in them.” She is right. Not all arguments are equal. But neither are all contexts are equal.
There is an inherent tension between avoiding social discomfort and pursuing truth. These considerations will always need to be balanced, and how will differ according to context. A university classroom, which was created specifically to pursue truth and wisdom, will be a more appropriate venue for a rigorous and spirited debate than an Easter dinner table, where the purpose of convening is more about time with loved ones than a quest for axioms.
Dowd continues, “Succumbing to uplift, edification and happy talk is basically saying that there’s something more important than telling the truth: not making enemies, not hurting people’s feelings.”
Dowd is again absolutely correct. But sometimes, people are more important than truth. At the very least, sometimes, truths do not need to be verbalized—think “Honey, does this dress make me look husky?”—if it means preserving a relationship and respecting the other person’s dignity.
A First Amendment right to free speech is not a moral obligation to freely speak every single truth that pops into our head the moment it comes to us. If it were, we would all lead a much lonelier existence.
All contexts are not equal, but what does remain equal is the inherent dignity and worth of the people one engages with. This means that in no environment should truth be pursued at literally any cost. It is when we neglect to recognize the humanity and dignity in every person, including those with whom we disagree, that we feel justified in demonizing them, cutting them off, and even hospitalizing them.
Indeed, respect for one another amidst passionate disagreement is a cornerstone of our democratic republic. A pluralistic, egalitarian, increasingly varied democratic republic like ours can survive only when its citizens are willing and able to live along one another amid deep difference.
True civility, or moderating words and actions for the sake of respecting others’ dignity, does not mean completely avoiding discussion on current issues of great importance, whether it is possible violent conflict with North Korea or the recent controversy over Aziz Ansari and the #metoo movement (captured brilliantly by another SNL sketch).
It simply means placing people’s dignity before the prize of winning an argument. Armed with this tactic, we can not only better tolerate the Aunt Ednas in our lives, but perhaps we can even better love them to the end of a more harmonious—and certainly a less aggravating—Easter dinner for all.