The Varieties of (Not) Listening
WE COULD avoid some measure of incivility if we simply agreed with each other all the time. But quite apart from being plain boring, a nation where we all agreed would wither and ultimately die. Civil dialogue over differences is democracy's true engine: we must disagree in order to debate, and we must debate in order to decide, and we must decide in order to move. And it all works, as James Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, only if we begin by understanding the necessity of disagreeing: "As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed."
Civility does not require consensus on everything. Civility and disagreement can both thrive at the same time. That is why it may be a mistake to appeal too often, as President Clinton has tried to do, to the political center: it is not clear that there always is a political center, or that we should want one. As Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker has written, "The center that Clinton touts is a mathematical resultant, not a functioning consensus."1 I do not mean that Clinton (or any President) would be well advised to move hard to the left or the right. I mean only that we must be careful about suggesting that consensus on every issue is possible or even desirable. Politics in a vibrant, successful democracy requires disagreement and debate; civility simply provides the guidelines within which that debate should occur. Which leads us to another rule:
Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.