Everyone Loses the Culture Wars

In Texas we have a saying: “When you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the first one that yelps got hit.” The biting responses from Scott Yenor and Paul Ludwig tell me that I hit a nerve among some segment of potential readers. Others, like Lee Trepanier, seem to have mostly agreed with me. But my measured defense of civility wasn’t meant to provoke. The interesting question is why it did.

I’ll admit I was surprised by the harsh replies. No, I do not think that reading Aristotle’s Ethics or my own essay about civility—only the latest in a long line of apparently ineffective essays on the topic—would have changed the minds of the Kavanaugh accusers, pace Yenor. And though I’ve undoubtedly been called many things, “conservative warrior” has never been one of them. I don’t think it’s apt.

As I write this, though, I notice that my blood pressure is rising and I’m getting angry. This gives me pause. Why, exactly? I think it’s because two of my respondents, Yenor and Ludwig, are basically saying I’m wrong, and that I’m failing to offer the proper response to our cultural moment. In other words, I’ve “flunked,” as Ludwig asserts. I’m guessing that they might have felt a similar discomfort when they read my original piece. Perhaps they thought that I was implicitly condemning them and saying that their views of the political world were incorrect.

I actually think that their arguments about the shortcomings of civility are reasonable, and even make sense in light of our intensely angry and polarized political world. The progressive Left is ascendant in culture and employs little civility; the Right is on its heels and must plead for the victor to be merciful. University presidents cower and apologize as anti-racist advocates make radical demands for “systemic” change. Christian colleges are pushed to repudiate long-held views about sexuality and marriage. Corporations follow suit and promote their own calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion, regardless of whether their customers support such an agenda. In light of all this, civility can look cowardly and weak, a poor response to a threat that calls for something more like Machiavelli’s virtù. I get it. But I also think Yenor and Ludwig are making assumptions that are not quite right or, at least, not quite right about the vision of civility and politics I was trying to sketch out. So here are a few thoughts in response.

With respect to the war metaphor, “wartime” was meant as an allusion to C.S. Lewis’s famous “Learning in Wartime,” as Yenor rightly surmises. My point was not so much to dwell on the incivility and fighting that we see around us (real as this is) or to say that we must see ourselves as warriors (I don’t think this is true). Rather, I wanted to say civility can exist at almost all times, even when things look unpropitious. This was, after all, Lewis’s point about liberal learning in the midst of a war that was more real and violent than what we are now experiencing.

But there are problems with the way my two respondents talk about war. Yes, everyone senses that we are in the midst of a prolonged culture war between progressives and conservatives. But the analogy to actual war has limitations. In domestic politics, we can never in good conscience aim at the destruction (or “extermination,” as Ludwig puts it) of those we see as enemies. These “enemies” are actually our colleagues, neighbors, and perhaps even family. Despite the anger and frustration we may feel at their words and actions, we must aim at their good or, at minimum, at peaceful coexistence. This requires civility, persuasion, restraint, and patience.

Think of Augustine on the moral conditions for a just war: “We do not seek peace in order to wage war, but we go to war that we may secure peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in war-making, so that, by vanquishing them, you may lead those you are forcefully subduing back to the prosperity of peace.” Again, I do not think the language of “vanquishing” is appropriate in our circumstances, though it may be reasonable in armed conflicts of the sort that Augustine had in mind. But I also don’t think the language of “winning” makes much sense either. Yenor writes that “[t]he strong Left could afford civility . . .  but the weak conservatives cannot afford it if they hope to win.” What would it mean to “win” our culture wars? Do we really think that conservative Christians are going to persuade LGBTQ activists that they have been wrong all along, or vice versa? In the short term it seems extremely unlikely, not to say impossible.

Yet imagine it were possible. Do we “win” through fighting and incivility—in short, with force and anger? Do we capture institutions and impose our vision on all those who are dependent on us, hoping that they’ll just shut up and go along? (They won’t.) While it might appear that this is what progressives are doing at present—in university diversity culture and in so-called anti-racism training—these are only the last steps in a decades-long cultural transformation. The developments we now lament have been in the works for many years, as progressives acted strategically in schools, on television and in movies, and in the courts, to change sexual mores, redefine the family, and promote the politics of identity. As many people have pointed out, progressives changed culture before they asserted raw power.

And if we were planning to win by force, just what techniques will we use? I’m not confident that abrasive op-eds and polemical attacks online are going to do any good for our causes at all. Contributions like these tend to exacerbate divisions, reassuring people that it is perfectly fine to avoid arguments that they already don’t like. While acerbic criticism may rally the troops, it probably does more harm than good in pursuance of civil peace.

To be fair, when it comes to the dearly held first principles of political life, I’m not sure how much change can be effected by calm and civil arguments either. What certainly does matter is how we live our lives, in public and in private. As the philosopher L.P. Jacks maintained almost a century ago, “we should look for reality in the field of action . . . [we should] school ourselves to think of the highest as that which can be acted and not as that which can be spoken only. Speak it we cannot. Act it we can, thereby making it clear to ourselves and communicating it clearly to others.” And here we are back to my original argument: that civility is an embodied characteristic necessary for civil association. We see civility not in words alone, but also in the actions, carriage, and temperament of ourselves and others.

Our own identities should not be constituted by, or essentially focused on, political warfare. It’s true that war may come to us whether we want it or not. But if we allow ourselves to be consumed in battles, thinking of ourselves primarily as fighters, we are really missing out on a flourishing life.

Scott Yenor has been viciously and publicly attacked for his conservative positions. I wonder if he objects to my views on civility because he imagines that they entail some kind of holier-than-thou or “above it all” stance. For him, civility might appear as an unwillingness to take stands on difficult issues, to think of oneself as always moderate and unflappable, and to remain friends with everyone, at any cost. I have seen this response in certain acquaintances over the years. I know just how irritating it is when someone refuses to dirty his hands in anything political or adversarial, or cannot sympathize when you have been hurt because he insists on always seeing your opponent’s point of view. But I emphatically do not think civility entails neutrality or indifference. It certainly can coexist with strong feeling and principled stances. And, as Yenor rightly points out, the human situation is such that nobody can be civil all the time. There are situations, by Zeus!, when righteous anger is more appropriate than civility. I agree. But anger should not be our default position.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that we ought to avoid taking positions, defending our views, and opposing the excesses and derailments of modern culture. To paraphrase Eric Voegelin, we have no obligation to participate in the spiritual crisis of our society, a crisis which has pushed us to this extraordinarily uncivil moment. On the contrary, Voegelin writes, “everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.” The work of journalists and academics is precisely to oppose the disorder we see around us, and to dig beneath common understandings and conventional meanings to reveal the truth.

I want to offer one final set of observations about what I mean by “politics” and make an apologia for my homespun examples from daily life. I sense that Yenor and Ludwig perceive a cleavage between private and public, and “between philosophy and the city.” When they write about politics, they seem to be thinking about electoral politics, about the things that go on in state legislatures, in Washington, D.C., and on television news channels, blogs, and websites. Civility, Yenor writes, “is a virtue fit for small ball politics.”  

But I see no such divide. For me, the personal is political. And I mean that in a way that is exactly opposed to its normal meaning. We all know this phrase from second-wave feminism, where it conveys the idea that women are oppressed “all the way down” and that even the family ought to be reconfigured to reflect some progressive notion of gender equality.

I mean, by contrast, that the personal is political because nothing we do is unconnected with the communal life of a society. Our lives are potentially constructive all the way up, from the smallest and most private actions to those that are public and visible. The things that are dearest to me personally—raising children, relationships with neighbors and family, cooking for others, teaching students, writing, and yes, teaching a child how to play checkers—preserve and re-create culture. They provide ballast against the toxic infringements of modern progressivism and identity politics. And as Mary Eberstadt has argued in a provocative book, the decline of the family is at least partially responsible for the extremes of identity politics.

These humble activities are no less important because they are unseen by others. They are often more important than what we do in public because they have concrete impacts on particular persons. And they are also “political” in the broadest sense, because we are forming the characters of those who live around us, who will go on to form others in turn. We do this by engaging in various human practices—of friendship, neighborliness, study, worship, commerce, and work, and of course politics as we normally think of it.

In fact, my homespun examples comprise exactly the life that we are trying to protect when we act politically. Our own identities should not be constituted by, or essentially focused on, political warfare. It’s true that war may come to us whether we want it or not. But if we allow ourselves to be consumed in battles, thinking of ourselves primarily as fighters, we are really missing out on a flourishing life. In all the practices I mentioned above we need civility and, as Ludwig rightly calls it, “civic friendship.” My friend Jeff Polet says it best: “The basic contours of human life, what Kirk called ‘the permanent things,’ remain, and they are defended more in the living than in the arguing.”

I have a feeling that if Yenor, Ludwig, and I were to sit down over a bottle of wine (or several) we wouldn’t disagree as much as we do in print. I would probably moderate my views, and they theirs, and we would be able to see each other as human beings in a way the written word doesn’t allow. This is not to say that we would have no disagreements. Indeed, I think what we’re disputing is a fundamental issue for conservatives in the present day: do we take the fight directly back to those who are fighting us, a la Rod Dreher, Sohrab Ahmari, and Adrian Vermeule? Or do we find some other way of continuing in the activities we know to be good, fighting and protecting only when necessary, but not succumbing to anger and incivility?