20 Lessons on Civility in the Public Square from Nicholas Kristof, John Inazu, and Tim Keller


Even though we live in the United States of America, it would stretch the truth beyond it's breaking point to say our nation has ever been truly pluralistic, in the sense of our public square embodying a diverse "marketplace of ideas," where viewpoints—even those that outrage listening ears—can be exchanged freely and cordially. As Tim Keller mentioned in this article, those who sit on the thrones of cultural power—the academic, corporate, and media centers—tend to silence those falling on the wrong side of the public morality of the day. A number of white evangelical Christians are guilty of it in the past, and those holding the cultural reins today are often culpable of the same thing. We all have a long way to go in extending charity toward those with whom we strongly disagree.  

Given this critical issue, and the fact that part of my mission in Arlington (right outside our nation's public square) is to help folks learn to dialogue and engage across deep difference, I was thrilled to head up to New York City a few weeks ago and attend Civility in the Public Square, an evening with Nicholas Kristof (Pulitzer Prize winning editorialist for the New York Times), John Inazu (Washington University Law School professor, and author of Confident Pluralism), and Tim Keller (founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and New York Times best-selling author). 

What I appreciated most about the event was the diversity of perspectives at the table: with Kristof a liberal/progressive op-ed columnist, Inazu a law professor and whose Japanese father was detained in an internment camp, and Keller a well-respected pastor, they were able to address the topic in a more nuanced, multidimensional manner than if one of them spoke alone. 

The evening began with Kristof and Inazu each giving 20-minute monologues, after which Keller joined them for a round-table discussion moderated by Stephanie Summers

Rather than provide an exhaustive review, I've jotted down ten insights each speaker provided at some point throughout the evening. I trust there will be something in here you can apply to your own personal development and sphere of influence. 

Nicholas Kristof

1. It's easy to think our present state of incivility is a result of the internet, twitter, social media, etc., but incivility goes back as far as democracy itself. For example, in the election of 1800, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Jefferson's camp accused Adams of having "hideous, hermaphroditical character," and Adams' group warned that Jefferson was in favor of "teaching murder, rape, adultery, and incest, in schools." That's not very civil. 

2. There's something in the fabric of humanity which, as early as childhood, causes us to look at someone and immediately identify them as "My Team, or the Other Team." We take shortcuts to do this through features such as clothing, race, and class. Many of our problems with incivility arise from this tendency to "otherize," and once we've otherized someone, it makes it a near eventuality to dehumanize them. Once we've dehumanized someone, it's a foregone conclusion to form prejudiced opinions and make (or think) insulting comments about or toward them.

3. More than ever before, we're way less likely to be friends with, or even live near, those who hold different views than we do. For example, about 50% of the counties in the nation are going to vote in a landslide for either candidate. Think about that. As a frame of reference, in the 1970s, that number was only at 20%. [Note: this is one reason why so many liberal counties were utterly shocked when Trump won. Inside the echo chambers, it never occurred to them that so many in the country would vote for the "other" president.]

There's ample evidence that when we're surrounded by like-minded people, it only further cements our positions and closes us off to differing perspectives. For example, a Harvard study looked at judges and how they rule, and it found that when liberal judges were empaneled with other liberal judges, they become more liberal, and when conservative judges were empaneled with other conservatives, they only became more conservative. This is particularly unnerving when you consider that judges tend to be very intelligent, well-trained people. 

4. Due to selection bias, which means humans desire information which not only avoids questioning our assumptions, but actually confirms our biases, sites like the DailyMe (where you curate the news you want to see), and Facebook (which pushes the news articles it thinks you'll agree with), are especially deadly in perpetuating the tendencies addressed in #2 and #3. 

5. The capitalistic pressures of the media world encourage networks to exclusively produce news its viewers will agree with, since they'll lose viewers if they deliver news that ruffles the audience's feathers, or even if they produce news that doesn't appeal to the popular desire for entertainment. For example, if you're an executive producer, and you send a camera crew off to report on a Muslim community or other marginalized group, rather than showcase Trump's latest verbal outpouring, your ratings will go down. Furthermore, some of these "news" sites are incredibly vicious in presenting scurrilous information that denigrates people on the other side, which, again, only reinforces our prejudices and makes it easy to dehumanize those who think differently. 

Kristof can say this because he's a journalist and he does believe in the institution's ability to do good, but because of the business model, and the low barrier to entry of alternative news sites, it may result in the media as a whole being more part of the problem than the solution.   

6. An unfortunate "God Gulf" exists between many liberals and conservative evangelicals, due to the Moral Majority behaving disparagingly toward select people groups in the past, and many liberals thereby responding with an intolerance of their own; religions intolerance has recently been matched by irreligious intolerance. Secular groups are doing amazing work, and religious groups are doing superb work, but because of the gulf of distrust, they often don't cooperate, and when they don't cooperate, the winners are poverty, illiteracy, and disease. There are instances when the two groups have bridged the gap and worked together and the results have been spectacular, such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but there's still a long ways to go in working together to fight common enemies such as poverty and disease. 

How build bridges and move forward?

7. Engaging with real people with whom you disagree is extremely important. If you're tempted to disparage a person or group, meet with them in person whenever possible, or at the very least, speak to them on the phone. This makes it significantly harder to dehumanize, dismiss, and denigrate them. 

If Nick (Kristof) plans on taking a whack at someone in an upcoming column, he'll actually call them before writing it. This forces him to be more careful, to understand the person on the other end of the phone is in fact a real person, and who probably has deeply held positions and who can't believe how wrong Nick is in his positions. This tempers Nick's posture and enables him to write the piece in more human and empathetic terms. 

8. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Often the folks who are the most humble and charitable in their positions are the ones who remain silent, while the "worst" rush into judgement with vitriol. It's imperative that the "best" of us actually speak up, rather than remaining quiet out of fear of offending or being wrong. It's possible to act on your convictions in a humble manner, all the while acknowledging that not everything you believe will be an eternal truth. 

9. Oftentimes, merely becoming aware of your biases (because no one is unbiased) is a huge step toward greater civility. One of the main problems with racism isn't whites who deliberately discriminate, and who don't believe in inequality, but rather well-meaning whites who do believe in equality and yet unconsciously act in ways that perpetuate inequality.  Tools such as as the IAT are very helpful with this. Along this vein, it's imperative to spend time with others who can help point out your biases. 

10. Seek out the intelligent views that are different than yours. Not just the dumb ones, but real, intelligent people who can challenge you not just on the answers to the important questions, but on what those important questions even are. 


John Inazu

There are three responses to the challenge of difference: chaos, control, and coexistence.

1. Chaos. John sat in the pentagon and witnessed the challenge of those who believe chaos as the solution when they smashed planes into buildings.  

2. Control. The end result of this is totalitarianism or theocracy, both of which are non-ideal. Some in this country are lured by the possibility of control: you can see it in the nativism and nostalgia of some on the right, and in the moralistic assurances by some on the left, who believe opposing viewpoints are necessarily bigoted, and therefore worthy of suppression. 

3. Coexistence, or Confident Pluralism (CP), as John names it. CP argues that we must live together peaceably in spite of, and while acknowledging, deep differences. He proposes this can happen through two ways: at the government level, insisting on legal protections that honor differences, and at the personal level, choosing civility and kindness in our own relationships across difference. These two are deeply interwoven, because the inclination to shut down a particular viewpoint begins with personal antipathy and ends in legal prohibition, and the refusal to extend protections of the law to others eventually results in turning the law against them. 

Much of the civility we aspire to obtain at the national and global level depends on us and the individual decisions we make in interacting with others. John proposes three aspirations to overcoming shortcomings in civic practice: tolerance, humility, and patience. (I really appreciated how he reframed these terms. See below.) 

4. Tolerance recognizes that, for the most part, people are free to pursue their own beliefs and practices, even those we find morally objectionable. It doesn't impose the fiction that all ideas are equally valid or morally harmless, but it does require a practical enduring of difference. It also means respecting people for their humanity, aiming for fair discussion, and providing space to differ about serious matters, particularly with those we find intolerable. 

5. Humility recognizes not only that others will find our beliefs and practices to be morally objectionable, but also that we can't always prove why we are right, and they are wrong. Some of most cherished beliefs come from contested premises that others do not share. (Note: Keller picks up on this incredibly important point later.) 

6. Patience encourages efforts to truly listen, to make a serious attempt to understand, and to empathize. This doesn't mean we ultimately accept other vies—in fact, patience may lead to a deeper realization of the error or harm in another viewpoint—but it does mean we shouldn't dismiss others before making a sincere attempt to understand their position. 

Without the ability or avenues to pursue the above three aspirations, genuine dialogue occurs less frequently, and contested assumptions go unchallenged. Tolerance becomes a demand for acceptance, humility is supplanted by moral superiority, and patience loses to outrage. 

7. In the university setting, where John spends most of his time, there's something that passes for civility, but in reality it's a feigned consensus, a false unity. Real civility both acknowledges the depth of our differences and the humanity of the other person, combining both, and dialoguing across that. 

8. We have a "Crisis of Authority," which is relatively new: the major institutions across politics, education, religion, and the media have been significantly weakened. The rise of social media, coupled with the demise of many leaders in these sectors, has contributed to this . The fracturing of authority and institutions poses a major threat to attaining "modest unity," the minimum amount of consensus and sense of belonging that we need in order to make CP possible.

9.  In imagining a shared future, a challenge we confront is that some people still look only to the past. There's a deep nostalgia on both the right and left that longs for a bygone era where things just seemed to "work better," but these eras are different for each side, and for many in this country, going back to the "good ol' days" isn't so good if your race, gender, or religion placed you outside the political consensus ruling the times. 

However, while there is the tension between those who long for the past and those who've happily transcended it, this diversity of groups and opinions comes with a big upside: the possibility better and more creative solutions from working across difference, and navigating the challenges of pluralism without succumbing to the despair that leads to chaos, or the fear that leads to control. 

10. Is there a place for hope? John has been accused in a recent book review of naive optimism, and that his views are "doomed to immediate irrelevance." 

Yes, there's hope. This isn't the first time we've faced the issue of pluralism, and success has always revolved around finding modest unity against great odds. There are lots of smart, creative, caring people in this country, and although the election season isn't highlighting are best, there are countless individuals outside the spotlight doing an incredible amount of good. We need to tell each other the stories of the good that is happening, the surprising friendships that occur between those who disagree about important matters, the partnerships between religious and non-religious people, and the ordinary acts of neighbors and strangers helping each other in times of great need (during floods, for instance).

While this vision of confident pluralism is modest, and probably not the vision we all dream of, it's an important one. Confident pluralism doesn't give us the American Dream, but it helps us avoid the American Nightmare, and for that we cannot lose hope.