Civility and the Presidential Campaign

When it comes to civility, do as we say, not as we do

Fresno Bee, February 26, 2016

  • We all benefit from common courtesy
  • Civility is not innate; pop culture and political life undermine it
  • First Amendment freedom should be accompanied by considerate speech

Civility is a great and fragile good. Liberty allows our lips to flap. Common courtesy causes us to keep our mouths shut. Some bristle at the idea of political correctness. But without civility, political life becomes a fistfight.IMG_APTOPIX_GOP_2016_Tru_4_1_6L7ASOFI_L199078247

Donald Trump recently said he would like to punch a protester in the face. Trump extolled “the old days” when a protester like that would be “carried out on a stretcher.” At an earlier rally, Trump repeated an obscene insult directed at Ted Cruz.

Opponents of Trump also use inflammatory rhetoric. More than one pundit has called Trump a fascist. The Fresno State student newspaper even ran a picture withTrump’s face imposed on Hitler’s body in front of the White House.

Political rhetoric often generates more heat than light. But we seem to be rounding a corner, where vulgarity and vitriol trump reasonable argument.

In some parts of the world, politics quickly becomes pugilistic. Fistfights have broken out in legislatures in Japan, Ukraine and elsewhere.

We like to think of ourselves as more evolved. But without civility, are we any better than Kosovo, where legislators set off tear gas bombs in parliament?

Civil and honest speech are essential for democratic life. But civility is not innate. It takes a lot of effort to teach kids to keep their mouths clean, their hands to themselves, and their minds focused on truth.

Pop culture and political life undermine these lessons. Fists and foul language are not normal or acceptable. Crude, rude and obnoxious behavior remains rare and exceptional. Most of the time, most people don’t exchange insults or threaten violence. Profanity and violence are not permitted in schools or in business meetings.

Our schools work hard to curtail bullying and create safe and civil places for children to thrive. Businesses require anti-harassment training. These lessons in political correctness work. Most of us behave civilly most of the time. Those who misbehave get suspended, fired, sued or jailed.

Fear of punishment is not the only thing guiding civil behavior. Most people don’t view life as a competition. We don’t use words as trump cards. We don’t focus on winning. Rather, we exchange ideas.

Civil people engage in dialogue in order to build community and seek understanding. Civil dialogue requires self-restraint and an open mind. An old saying says that we have two ears and one mouth because we ought to listen twice as much as we talk.


The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, including the right to be offensive. But civil people do not say everything that is on our minds. We learn to hold our tongues out of respect for decorum. This may sound old-fashioned and uptight. But tact and discretion are useful skills.

One kindergarten cliché has a kernel of truth: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” A more advanced lesson teaches us to speak low, speak slow, but always speak the truth.

Civil discourse is a fragile fruit, easily destroyed by hot air. One obnoxious boor can ruin a picnic, a party or a political season. Bullies and blowhards infect families, school and the workplace. They rarely stop talking long enough to listen. If they do pose a question, it is usually only to catch their breath in order to continue their harangue.

Bullies want an audience. Blowhards only blow when someone is listening. The best response is often avoidance. Most people have learned to ignore their ornery uncle, cranky colleague or noisome neighbor.

When avoidance is impossible, we can invoke the basic rules of the kindergarten classroom: don’t threaten violence, don’t call people names, tell the truth and be kind to strangers. A more advanced lesson teaches that civility keeps the peace, protects freedom, shows respect for humanity and helps us discover the truth.

Donald Trump has hinted that he can be more civil and play nice. He said that he would be “more presidential” when the time comes. That’s good news. Let’s hope the time comes soon. But until that happens, we should remind our kids that what they are seeing and hearing in the world of politics is behavior that would not be permitted in the boardroom or on the playground.

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Morality and the drought

Moral lessons from the drought

Fresno Bee, December 9, 2015

  • Special Report: From drought to El Niño
  • Columnist Andrew Fiala says drought exposes conflicting ideas

Mind Your Own Business

Love, death and the spice of life

Fresno Bee, May 1, 2015 

  • Gay marriage, assisted suicide and marijuana reform point in libertarian direction
  • Meddling busy-bodies often breed unhappiness
  • Liberty and diversity allow for human flourishing21381_815893

We would all do much better if we would learn to mind our own business. Sometimes we need help and guidance. Children certainly do. But with regard to the moral and religious commitments of adults, it’s best to keep your opinion to yourself.

Recent issues point in this direction. Lawmakers in California are considering new legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court is debating gay marriage. Marijuana has been legalized in a variety of places.

Our multicultural society is becoming more complex as we work our way through the question of how much liberty we ought to permit. Liberty breeds complexity, creativity and conflict. When we leave people alone, the world becomes more interesting.

But it is not easy to leave others alone. We have a natural compulsion to meddle. If I believe that my ideas are right and good, it is reasonable to think that others can benefit from them. All true believers have the urge to evangelize.

But in a pluralistic society, our evangelical urges collide with the equal and opposite energies of those who have different ideas. Disagreement is a natural law of liberty. We can measure our freedom by the extent of our disputation.

Some like alcohol. Others like marijuana. And others abstain. A similar diversity is found with regard to the question of who we love and how we want to die. There is no consensus about these topics. The best we can do is agree to leave each other alone.

A friend and mentor of mine, the philosopher John Lachs, wrote the recent book “Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone.” Lachs encourages us to “curb our desire to rule over other people.” He says we must abandon the supposition that ours is “the only natural or worthy way to live.” We must resist the evangelical urge.

For that to happen, we need humility and a bit of historical perspective. People have disagreed about religion, morality, culture, and politics for millennia. Most attempts to impose rigid homogeneity have produced suffering. The solution is to allow as much liberty as possible.

In the end Lachs suggests, most of what other people do simply doesn’t matter. Does it really matter what other people do in the bedroom, who they love, how they recreate, how they pray, what they eat, or how they end their lives? It’s obnoxious to think that your neighbor’s private choices are your concern.

Of course there are some difficult questions. There are risks and benefits that must be weighed. It is possible, for example, to imagine insurance companies profiting from permissive suicide laws. Drug addiction and intoxicated driving are serious concerns on the marijuana frontier.

Such problems should make sense to everyone involved, even proponents of these ideas. Legislation and regulation should aim to minimize these risks. But the most significant goal of a secular political system is to prevent government from meddling in our moral and religious beliefs.

Liberty destroys conformity. There is no denying that. Those who value a dull, bland sameness will be disappointed by what happens when liberty is unleashed.

We often forget that libertarian political systems are new and innovative. In the old-days, a priest-king would decide what everyone had to do. Conformity was often enforced under penalty of death. And even when busy-bodies don’t have political power, meddling moralists make life miserable.

In a free, pluralistic society, we will often dislike the choices that others make. But as long as we leave each other alone, we’re making progress. We don’t have to agree about sex, marriage, death, dying or drug use in order to get along. We simply need to stay out of each other’s business.

Living, loving and dying are hard enough for each of us. Tending your own garden is work enough for a lifetime. And when we are left alone to cultivate our gardens in our own way, we may be pleasantly surprised by the result. Some will plant tomatoes. Others will grow carrots. Some will invite the wildflowers to bloom.

Freedom gives birth to variety, which is, as they say, the spice of life. Liberty, diversity and social conflict make life exciting, nutritious and often unexpectedly beautiful.

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Peace and Love at Christmas

Embrace the Deeper Meaning of Christmas

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2014

The state of Texas recently passed a law making it legal to say “Merry Christmas” in schools. The law grows out of a misguided worry that secular schools should not even mention Christmas. Some even fear that there is a secular war against Christmas.

Peace, Love, Joy, Christmas

The Reverend Franklin Graham, for example, recently wrote: “The war on Christmas is a war on Christ and His followers. It’s the hatred of our culture for the exclusive claims that Christ made.” This dispute is not surprising given the history of religious conflict and ongoing divisions in our diverse culture.

It might help to recall that disputes about Christmas have a deep history. There is no consensus about Christmas, even among Christians. Eastern traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6. The manger scenes we see around Christmas take liberties with the story. Jesus was most likely born in a cave, not in a stable. The animals are also a later addition, not found in the Bible. The Gospels themselves contain different stories.

This is not surprising for people who study religion. Religions and religious stories evolve over time. This helps us gain some perspective on the so-called war on Christmas. Christmas and Christianity itself has never been just one thing.

But the point of Christmas, it seems to me, is to find a way to look beyond our disputes. We celebrate peace, love, hope and joy during the Christmas season. It would be great to focus on those shared valued and leave the divisiveness for the rest of the year.

In our diverse world, not everyone accepts the exclusive theology behind Mr. Graham’s interpretation of Christmas. But we can all benefit from peace and love, joy and hope. Indeed, it is those values that allow us to coexist despite our deep theological differences.

You don’t need to take the nativity story literally to understand values celebrated at Christmas. We can all understand the dramatic moment when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that this story shows us the need for hospitality and that giving birth is momentous joyous and mysterious.

In some sense, Christmas has already become a secular holiday. It is a regular part of our yearly round of holiday closures and vacation scheduling. We all know that “winter break” coincides with Christmas. Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, made this point in a recent essay discussing the difficulty of managing religious holidays in our multi-religious culture. His solution is to be equitable, hospitable and respectful of our differences.

I corresponded with Mr. Haynes about this. He pointed out that schools should be free to teach about Christmas, while also teaching about other holidays in an academic fashion. Such teaching might include historic debates over the meaning of Christmas among Christians themselves. The colonial Puritans, for example, banned Christmas because they viewed its pagan elements as un-Christian.

While Christmas is inextricably linked to a celebration of the birth of Christ, the holiday is much more than that — it includes Santa and his reindeer, jingle bells and evergreen trees. These later additions have no connection to the Bible story. Christmas has evolved to be a secular — and universally accessible — celebration of joy, peace, love and hope.

The First Amendment guarantees that conservative Christians like Mr. Graham have a right to point out that Christmas originates in stories about the birth of Christ. Atheists also have a right to argue against Christmas and Christianity, if they like. But the Christmas spirit is more inclusive and welcoming than any exclusive religious or anti-religious diatribe. The values of Christmas encourage us to be warmer, gentler, kinder and more friendly. Inclusivity, hospitality, peace and love are important values for all of us.

The deep and universal message of Christmas is the hope that in an inhospitable world, we might find a peace, love and refuge. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. Christians layer theology onto the nativity scene, directing hope beyond this world. But the magic of Christmas is found here on earth in the joyous love of mothers and in the peaceful and hopeful faces of children, who have not yet been hardened by the world and its divisions.

Thanksgiving Religious Liberty

On Thanksgiving, be thankful for liberty

Puritan Thanksgiving

Fresno Bee, November 14, 2014 

We should be thankful that the Pilgrims are not in charge of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims condemned sports and other recreations along with idleness, gluttony and drunkenness. They celebrated modesty, frugality and hard work.

One Pilgrim, William Bradford, recounted an incident in which some men refused to work on Christmas Day. Those slackers spent Christmas playing “stoolball” — an ancestor of cricket. The governor of the colony condemned them for playing while others worked.

Richard Baxter, a Puritan preacher of the 17th century, wrote, “Set not your hearts upon your belly or your sport.” Our Thanksgiving rituals would make Baxter’s heart sink. Baxter was obsessed with the idea of redeeming time from vain pursuits. He thought that since our time on Earth is short, we ought not waste time on “needless sports, and plays, and idleness, and curiosity, and compliment, and excess of sleep, and chat, and worldliness.”

Our Thanksgiving myth celebrates the proverbial work ethic of the Pilgrims. We picture them toiling in the fields. We forget that they were uptight about sport, play and idle talk. We picture them sharing the bounty of their harvest with Indians. But we forget that they eventually slaughtered their Pequot and Wampanoag neighbors.

The Pilgrims were religious fundamentalists. They fled Europe in the name of religious liberty. They were also glad to escape the indolence of European culture. They saw labor as a religious calling. Hard work could prove worthiness for eternal life. Lazy idlers were not going to make it to heaven.

Few Puritans remain. Few see hard work as a religious duty. Even fewer believe that we should avoid playful amusements. Ironically, one of the most common places to hear the term “work ethic” is in sports, where we praise an athlete’s “work ethic.” How odd, to Puritan ears, that we have turned sport into ethical work!

The Puritans were ultimately focused on another realm of value — beyond work and recreation. For many of us, however, life simply is a round of working and consuming. And Thanksgiving has become a celebration of overeating, sports and consumerism.

The Pilgrims would be appalled. But one does not have to be a Puritan to recognize that there is something sad about a holiday devoted to eating, shopping and watching TV.

One of the fundamental problems of human life is that we are never satisfied — either with our work or with our play. When we are busy, we dream of vacation. When we are on vacation, we are anxious to get back to work. All November long we dream of Thanksgiving. But after four days of football, family and fattening foods, we are ready to get back to work.

Philosophers have long wondered about this paradoxical feature of our lives. Schopenhauer, the great pessimist of the 19th century, argued that life was either incessant toil or boring leisure. We slavishly work to create leisure. But when we have free time, we quickly fill it up with trivial games and amusements that are not worthy of human dignity. We work like dogs. And when we are not working, we behave like dogs.

The solution, of course, is to find work that you love and to fill your leisure with uplifting activity. There is something to be learned from the Puritans’ idea that work is a religious calling. If we discovered meaning in our work, then work would be something valued for its own sake, rather than a means to an end.

But the Puritan ethic has limits. There is menace in the missionary zeal of Puritans who condemn sports and other amusements in the name of redeeming time. The goal of finding meaningful work and uplifting recreation is important. But meaning cannot be imposed. It is created under conditions of liberty.

If there is something to work hard to defend, it is the idea that our time is our own. We redeem it according to our own best judgment. Some play; others pray. It’s up to each of us to decide how we want to spend our time. The idea of liberty led the Pilgrims away from Europe. We should be thankful today that we are free of the Pilgrims — free even to waste our time on pigskin and pumpkin pie.

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