On Civility and Democracy

Last night, at dinner, during a light-hearted and superficial Saturday night conversation with friends, I made the mistake, in a moment of openness, of saying that over time, as I have slowly gained more political and social awareness through directed and non-directed effort, that I have developed a small passion for certain political issues (surprise!). The comment was meant to relate how weird it feels to slowly and unconsciously develop into an adult–when did this happen and how? A girl to my left, upon hearing this, immediately stopped me and said: “Stop, so what do you think of ‪#‎blacklivesmatter?” Taken by surprise by this particular and intrusive question, especially in the wake of so many other domestic and international issues, and having genuinely made my statement to share in the particular burden and process of our generation, I answered simply and honestly that I agreed that, of course, black lives matter. I then, perhaps ruffled, drolly asked whether she upheld the notion that “all-lives-matter”. She then responded, “like, don’t make yourself special. Like, everyone matters–don’t make yourself special.” She had been a political science major in college.

I wanted to respond to her that, at the least, the black lives matters movement, as I understand it, is lobbying for (a) equal rights under the protection of law–and more than that–equality of treatment and perception. And that it (b) serves to demonstrate and remove systemic prejudices (and acts of violence) which appear to be occurring at an alarming rate against a group of our citizens, fellow Americans.

But I could not. Her opinion was steeled against reason, and was therefore not an opinion at all, but a prejudice—a moment of small tyranny. Her reasoning was this: “don’t make yourself special”, as if crying out for justice were in some way a request for special treatment. My other friend quickly steered the conversation away from politics, sensing the tavern was soon to become a classroom, and we went on with our nights. But I remember how it felt to hear those words, and I saw then, as I see daily, the necessity of stronger educations for all, not just some.

As a teacher, my political involvement does not occur along strict and divisive lines. My contribution to politics, or the polity at large, is to teach students to think in a rational and rigorous manner in order to consider issues of philosophy and literature. I then teach them to research arguments both in support and opposition to their nascent thoughts in order to deepen and broaden their understandings of significant issues of Western culture. I consider this their Western heritage. Lastly, I teach them to discuss their thoughts in reasoned, intelligent, and open ways amongst each other in seminars. They discuss issues of philosophy and literature in my class. The hope is that these skills and themes will be represented in their actions and words later in life. Perhaps these thoughts will turn towards the personal or political when they are older, and then they will have the skill-set and attitude necessary truly to analyze their thoughts and others. This is, admittedly, a small contribution to society, but it is what I offer.

If this message is advocating for anything, it is for meaningful discourse between individuals. This is where real, substantial, connections are forged. But in order to have these discussions, we must be informed, scrupulous, and willing to listen while presenting information as we know it in a process of mutual respect, not simply stating uninformed opinions in the hope that others will blithely agree in an unaffected manner.

People today are angry. And anger precludes rational thought—we have known this since well before the Roman Stoics founded a school of philosophy based on the controlling and containing of one’s emotions. Homer’s Iliad, which I teach, begins with rage afterall. And Virgil’s Aeneid ends with it; in both stories, the emotion has a devastating effect, whether engendered by gods or men.

Not to be melodramatic, but this emotion, if allowed to lead to disunity and incivility between peaceful citizens, friends, is exactly what ISIL wants. Their avowed intention in committing barbarous acts of terrorism is to sow disunity and discord in sovereign states in order that they topple themselves from within. If we forget how to engage with each other, regardless of our specific ideas on political policy, then we are losing a far larger battle than simply an argument. We are playing into the hands of an enemy—an enemy which wishes us to forget our love for each other and our ability to rationally discuss major issues with each other (intelligently using our first amendment right), and rather to act in the service of violent emotions, like animals. I will deny them this victory, personally, and I encourage you to do the same. I suppose if we disagree on how best to do this, we can at least talk about it.