Teresa Bejan

Tolerating Intolerance

Air Date: May 15, 2017

Teresa Bejan of Oxford University talks about her book “Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. How much intolerance are we prepared to tolerate is a question I’ve repeated on this broadcast since my tenure began three years ago. I suppose our guest today, Teresa Bejan, would reply that we must keep our conversations just tolerable enough to preserve American democracy. Professor of politics at the University of Oxford, Bejan is author of a new Harvard University Press volume, “Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration,” on which she expounded recently in the Washington Post. “You don’t have to be nice to political opponents,” she says, “but you do have to talk to them.” So how do we preserve even this definition of what she calls “mere civility,” the baseline necessary to interact even if with mutual contempt amid the hand-to-hand Twitter combat, what our guest calls a nasty brand of digital ad hominem invective? It’s certainly true that notions of civility have furthered persecution, suppression, and exclusion from those engaged both in hate speech and protests. So now we ask Teresa how we in her words can cultivate anew the “mental toughness to tolerate what we perceive as our opponent’s incivility.”

BEJAN: Right, well that is, I mean that’s the 64 thousand dollar question, and I, in the book and also in the Washington Post piece, I think a first step has to be trying to reverse this, you know, retreat that’s been happening for quite a long time, um, but this retreat into these kind of like-minded enclaves where we speak only with those who agree with us, uh, and really relish the much more agreeable com—uh, company of the like-minded. I think a first step to cultivating that mental toughness is simply to sort of take a step out of those much more comfortable, uh, communities and really kind of you know, do the difficult work of engaging those with whom we really deeply disagree.

HEFFNER: Tell us about Roger Williams and, and why you think he’s key to understanding civility anew in the contemporary context.

BEJAN: Yeah. Uh, Roger Williams is, as I put it, um, at one point in the book, he, he, he’s the hero, and um, although after the account I offer one might be a little bit, you know, surprised to hear that he’s a hero because I think the Roger Williams that is known, um, to Americans and I mean while acknowledging that Roger Williams is much less known to Americans than some of the other people that I discuss in the book like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, but Roger Williams is known as the founder of Rhode Island. Uh, he is known as a kind of early hero of conscience. He was exiled from Massachusetts Bay Colony by his fellow puritans, uh, and he founded what would become, uh, the colony of Rhode Island, uh, uh, Providence Plantations, um, on land uh, given to him by the Narragansett tribe. Um, so you know, the, insofar as he’s known, Williams is kind of extolled as a hero of conscience, of free speech, of you know, American religious liberty. Um, but one of the things that I point out in the book is that in a way this really, um, doesn’t do justice to just how interesting and also how frustrating, [LAUGHS] Roger Williams could be. He was one of this, uh, early generation of immigrants to the new world who fled England because of his puritanism which was um, coming under pressure within the Church of England, but as soon as he arrived, um, in Massachusetts Bay, his reputation as a young man of brilliance and godliness had preceded him and the elders of the Massachusetts church came to him and said Master Williams, we would love it if you would become teacher in our, in our church, which was a huge honor, right, you know, I’m sure many young people have graduated from universities today and are finding it difficult to get employment would sort of say oh wow, this is an amazing, amazing opportunity but Williams unceremoniously turns it down on the grounds that even the Puritan Church of Massachusetts Bay is not pure. It’s polluted because it’s not formally separated from the Church of England. So basically he rejects the of—job offer and in the process insults the people who’ve made the offer by saying you are polluted by your spiritual, uh, conversation with the unregenerate. And it’s that kind of intolerance, that spiritual intolerance that I find so fascinating about Williams. How did a man so convinced of others’ errors nevertheless found the most tolerant society that the world had ever seen in, in Rhode Island?

HEFFNER: And how did he do that?

BEJAN: Well, so the story I tell is a story of someone who is uncompromising in spiritual matters, absolutely uncompromising. I say in the book, you know, by the end of his life, he was so skeptical of other salvation that he was working, he would worship in a congregation only of two. Him and his wife, and you know, he’s not entirely sure about her. Um, but that spiritual exactingness goes hand in hand with a sense of the fallenness and inevitable corruption of this world and really sort of frank and clear-eyed realization that one has to live together with idolaters in this world if one would live at all. And it’s that, it’s that combination of recognizing that one has a duty to witness against the errors of others, to call them out, to sort of as he says to sound the silver alarms against sin and against error, but nevertheless remain committed to living together, um, in civil society. Uh, to speaking to each other, and indeed to evangelizing one another. Um, so that’s what’s I think is really distinctive about Williams, um, not simply in the 17th century but indeed even today in the 21st, I think that that’s a combination that a lot of us find it difficult to wrap our heads around, but I think it’s precisely the combination that we, that we need.

HEFFNER: Would you say that you, that the incivility today in terms of that inability to have agreeable or at least tolerably agreeable civil discussion, would you say that that is the historical precedent of the American experience or would you say that this is an outlier.

BEJAN: Mm. Right so one of the um, one of the questions that came up immediately in writing the book ‘cause I was kind of engaging with um, other current, um, writers on civility and, and more specifically on the supposed crisis of civility that’s afflicting the American republic, I mean at the time I was very, uh, very sensitive to … to the claims of what, those I call the civility skeptics basically. You know, the claim that our crisis of civility is somehow unprecedented, um, usually depends on a kind of uh, ignorance about the true tenor of public discourse in previous, uh, historical periods, you know, and complaints about a crisis of civility really are as old as the American republic itself. Now that being said, I think that we need to be skeptical of claims to you know, unprecedented levels of anything in public discourse. That being said, I do think that we are in a period of um, finding disagreement particularly, um, unpleasant and threatening, that there is, there is something to the perception that you know, that there is a kind of crisis of civility, but then what we mean by civility when we say there’s a crisis of civility, that’s what I’m really interested in, and that I think, um, that, the sense that you know, our disagreements are becoming more and more threatening because we feel as though we’ve lost the kind of shared foundation upon which disagreement can take place in a tolerant society, that I think is very, very closely akin to the problems and the challenges that were facing people in the 16th and 17th centuries, um, in this period when there was a fluorescence not only of religious difference but of religious disagreement and indeed of a lot of uncivil speech surrounding religious disagreement. So the question of how you coexist under those conditions is one I think that really is eerily familiar to us, and to say that our crisis is not unprecedented is not to deny that it’s a crisis, but I think that it can then help us recognize that perhaps there are resources in the past for thinking through our own challenges.

HEFFNER: And so if you talk about a crisis of incivility, you’re talking about the Civil War. You’re not, you’re not talking about 17th, 18th century.

BEJAN: So here I think that, um, one of the things that I want to push back against in going to the 17th century and saying that it can offer 21st century insights is precisely this kind of hard and fast distinction between those differences that are religious on the one hand and those differences that are political on the other hand, and precisely the way I want to ally that distinction is by pointing out the similar dynamics of believing and belonging that are implicit in both religious and political disagreements. So I think that one of the, one of the trends that I’ve certainly noticed in my lifetime, um, and that really informed the writing of the book, is the extent to which, um, Americans often view politics as a matter of being on the right side, taking sides and then knowing who’s on the wrong side, right? And that dynamic of kind of purity on the one hand, saying I’m in the right, I’m with the angels, and you there, my opponents, are on the side of the devils…


BEJAN: That’s the dynamic that I’m really interested in, and there I think that you know, we can, in a way we can sort of um, we’re sort of guilty of uh, of, of downplaying the differences in two respects. So just in the 17th century, religious disagreements absolutely led to wars of swords, [LAUGHS] all the time. I mean the threat of religious violence was very real. I mean Guy Fawkes proved that the the—the threat of Catholic terrorism was real enough, um, and there are armed uprisings, uprisings in London in the 1660s, um, led by uh, led by people who you know, are saying that the apocalypse is nigh. Over 40 people died. And this is, you know, and then there are sort of long-standing religious wars in France and also uh, the continuing oppression in Ireland. And so violence is real there, but also the extent to which, um, our political disagreements today have this kind of sectarian tenor of it doesn’t even sort of matter so much of you know, getting something done or coming to an agreement. What matters is this politics of purity. Let’s not become, uh, let’s not become polluted by associating ourselves with uh, errors that we deem damnable.

HEFFNER: How do you view religion as um, either… advancing or injuring the cause of civility now, right now?

BEJAN: There are a couple things, um, that I want to be clear on, I mean so one is just to say that… in the 17th century, religious disagreements are political disagreements…


BEJAN: ‘Cause they go to the question of you know, how we organize the church state and you know, just I live in England now, it’s important to remember that you know, there’s an established church in England to this day in a, in a, in a society that thinks of itself as secular. But another point is simply to say that I think that um, I’m not saying that political disagreements have become religious disagreements. What I’ am saying is that there is a kind, the se—the kind of sectarian mentality that sees, um, political questions as being of fundamental, existential significance, and I think you notice this in, in the 2016 election and, and in the aftermath, you’ve seen a lot of … implicitly and explicitly apocalyptic rhetoric that says, you know, basically the end is nigh. You know, the Antichri …[LAUGHS] the Antichrist is risen. I mean so I think there’s a way in which, um, we can exaggerate the distance from, of our own worlds from the past by saying oh we are secular, they’re not. In a way, I think that it’s, it’s not really, that’s not really the question. It’s about how human beings understand these questions of believing and belonging and how they define themselves in opposition to um, those with whom they disagree and then see themselves as engaged in a kind of fundamental or existential battle.

HEFFNER: The religious has the framework, the kind of underpinning of, of how those existential questions guide us has hijacked questions of public policy and the political process.

BEJAN: Right.

HEFFNER: But it’s not clear that there’s any real foundation of theology or faith that is determinative in how we’re getting to those decisions. In other words, there is the apocalypse but there’s not the Bible. There’s not a guiding creed that has any logical, theological, uh, basis or any historical theological basis.

BEJAN: Oh that’s a, well so I would say that there’s plenty of creedal politics. Uh, and, I’d say isn’t, you know, isn’t secular liberalism…

HEFFNER: Well at least not constructively, how, I mean…

BEJAN: Its, its own creed? [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Well that’s true but I, I guess I’m, I’m, I’m asking you constructively…

BEJAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Religion in this country, whether it was the abolitionist movement…


HEFFNER: Has been also a force for social change and social justice.

BEJAN: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: And so I’m, I’m wondering from you where is the potential for a pro-social…


HEFFNER: Religious being…

BEJAN: Right.

HEFFNER: To guide us, to inform a “mere civility” that can be constructive.

BEJAN: Right, oh that’s, yeah, fantastic. Um, so… I think that it’s right to say that political disagree—you know, to sort of be hardline about this distinction between political disagreements that are meant to be conducted on the basis of kind of shared norms of evidence and you know, not appeal to certain sacred texts, I mean, I grant that distinction although I think oftentimes we can exaggerate the uh, the extent to which our own creeds are sort of rationally founded as opposed to things that we adopt in a kind of identitarian way. You know, I’m a secular liberal ergo I’m committed to these principles that I hold to be self-evident and sacred and I will fight. [LAUGHS] I will fight for those, and I think that that’s valuable, I think that you know, that liberalism should be a fighting creed. But um, but what worries me is a kind of, this increasing sense of a kind of politics of purity that says that what matters most is making sure that, you know, my side is presented in its most purified and um, righteous way as a, you know, because once we enter into the political domain, it’s a domain of compromise, it’s a domain of, you know, rubbing along together and suffering and sort of putting up, putting up with those things and those people that we don’t really like, and I think if you see a way in which American politics has become increasingly dysfunctional, I think that’s a clear, that’s a clear case where you know, we can see about this, this politics of purity that leads to increasing polarization in Congress and in the public sphere.

HEFFNER: Wait so, it would strike me that impurity,

BEJAN: Right.

HEFFNER: I don’t mean to answer my own question, but what is the, the constructive force can be the impurity or the acknowledgement of…

BEJAN: Of the fallenness of our condition of living together…

HEFFNER: Or, or you being more learned than, than I, or your pastor or your teacher…

BEJAN: Right.

HEFFNER: Being able to, or your countryman being able to impart something that you might not experience.

BEJAN: Right, so and that’s wonderful, so it’s the, you know, there’s a kind of hope for and a counsel to epistemic humility that says, you know, surely a first step to this has to be recognizing the limitedness of our own perspective and the fact that we have things to learn from others. I, to have a uh, open mind…


BEJAN: As you might say.

HEFFNER: Yes, yes.

BEJAN: Um, and I think that that’s absolutely crucial, it’s absolutely important. But it’s not… I don’t know that it’s sufficient to cure what ails us, and I think that there may be a place, and this is the kind of counter-intuitive position I argue in the book. There may be a place for a more Evangelical understanding of our political positions that is convinced of the righteousness of our own views but nevertheless sees the task as addressing them and trying to convince our opponents of them.


BEJAN: Right? Instead of just preaching to the converted, to open up again and say actually, if I believe myself to be so righteous, surely a consequence of that should be a kind of commitment to talking to others. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Right. Well I said before there is a kind of incivility of obstructionism. There’s a kind of incivility of dysfunction in the political process today. You write, “Mere civility demands that we keep the disagreement going no matter how disagreeable…” I’ve also talked about disagreeably agreeing which I think is what you’re, what you’re getting at here.


HEFFNER: “…to continue the battle of words without resorting to violence.” So what, what do you see as, when you talk about the criteria for mere civility or, and we spent too little time with Keith Bybee discussing this so now we have five minutes to, to talk about it with you…


HEFFNER: But what, what can we collectively agree is “mere civility?” You’re based in Britain and so Prime Minister’s Questions I think is an apt example of mere civility, right?

BEJAN: Yes, yes, exactly. That has been one of the ironies of my academic career as an American now teaching in Britain. I see, um, Prime Minister’s Questions and also uh, debate in Parliament as a—exemplary cases of mere civility, things that I’d like to see more of in the United States. Um…

HEFFNER: Explain. What do you see.

BEJAN: Right. So I think that the first thing to be really clear on is what we mean by civility. So civility generally, you know, for all of our sort of hand-waving and pearl-clutching about a loss of civility, people are often not very forthcoming with what they think civility actually is, so civility seems to be a conversational virtue that’s meant to govern disagreement, and particularly govern disagreement in a, in a tolerant society, i.e. one that’s committed to, to tolerating difference. Um, “mere civility” then is a particular way of construing that virtue, and “mere civility,” then as I define it in the book, is a virtue, it’s a minimal conformity to the norms of respectful behavior, sufficient to keep a conversation going. So what’s really important about this is that um, oftentimes when we talk about civility, it can sound very aspirational. For instance, when President Obama made civility a, a sort of central theme of his presidency, it was always in a kind of high, it’s, it was a high tone of aspiration. Civility as a kind of commitment to um, political friendship, mutual respect, and indeed, an open mind, whereas “mere civility” is a floor, [LAUGHS] not a ceiling.


BEJAN: It’s…

HEFFNER: So how does that play out in the House of Commons, or Parliament.

BEJAN: So what it means is that, uh, you are often going to express your disagreements, uh, in a full-throated, full-throated way, uh, that you know, expresses what you take to be the righteousness of your views. It may mean that you often use language that is intended to be, or not intended to be, insulting. Um, now “mere civility” is not a counsel to insults. It actually says that often ad hominem attacks are a very good way of kind of cutting off disagreement and trying to define people out of the discussion, um, but “mere civility” says that in the face of such insulting speech, one nevertheless has to remain in the conversation, and there you see for something that seems quite minimal, it actually becomes really very demanding, because remaining committed to talking to those one see, one sees as kind of irredeemably…


BEJAN: Mistaken is difficult enough. Those whom we find it, you know, difficult or even impossible to respect, that’s hard enough. Maintaining a commitment to conversation in the face of language that we, that we see as insulting, putting up with that, that’s also really difficult.


BEJAN: So “Mere Civility” actually makes as many demands, perhaps even more, of listeners than it does of speakers.

HEFFNER: In his farewell address, President Obama actually encouraged a far more practical notion of civility and try talking to someone in person.

BEJAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: “Get off the web.” And it strikes me that again, aptly positioned from the British and American perspective, you know, there are some volatile, vigorous disagreements in Parliament, and if you watch Prime Minister’s Questions you get all of the different constituencies, but there’s a humor, a good-hearted, a good-hearted villain…

BEJAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is better than a, [LAUGHS] you know, a malicious, uh, Machiavellian villain. Isn’t that part of the difference here and…

BEJAN: Yeah, that’s really nice. It’s, it’s um, it’s the fact of routinely engaging with, in, in a very, in, oftentimes in language that is heated and hateful, but nevertheless the sort of the continued practice of disagreeing with and speaking with those whom you oppose, right, and those whom you understand yourself in opposition to, and what really worries me in um, American public discourse, and I actually would point to as I think one of the things that has changed and has made disagreement more uncivil is paradoxically the kind of you know, as debate online becomes more and more vitriolic, that’s a consequence of the fact that people are for the most part cloistering themselves in like-minded enclaves in which they then let loose on their opponents on the assumption that the oppo—you know, that they’re only speaking with people that, that agree with them already. Or, alternatively, if you do sort of uh, let loose on someone with whom you disagree in the comments section on a blog, you never really expect a kind of, you never expect a response back. And so there’s a way in which incivility becomes purely expressive as opposed to communicative.


BEJAN: Right? Sort of venting my, you know, venting my spleen.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

BEJAN: As opposed to actually, you know, trying to change the mind of someone that I think is really culpably in the wrong.

HEFFNER: I’ve pointed, we’re wrapping up here but I point to the example of, of discourse as being more fun, charming, you know, across the pond, but also the constituencies that are represented in a parliamentary system, which is noteworthy if you’re not familiar with the British context and are watching Prime Minister’s Questions, you feel like you have ownership in those debates because it’s not just the D and the R, the Democrat and the Republican…


HEFFNER: Uh, and therefore there is more civil uh, free spirit, there is something in a parliamentary system I think that, um…


HEFFNER: Gives people a greater opportunity or affinity for civility, I think.

BEJAN: Interesting. I, I mean I do think that people find it easier to feel they have skin in the game, um, and that they have some, some real way of getting in touch with their representatives, um, but partly that just has to do with the fact that Britain is a much smaller country, and here I’m going to make a, you know, as an American exile, you know, sing a paean to my, to my homeland and say that American two-party democracy is a really wonderful and actually miraculous thing. [LAUGHS] If pressed, you know, this is not the system that you would design, but every system has its deficiencies. Every, every system has its problems. And I think that um, given just the amazing tightwire act that the American republic is, a country on this scale, this geographically and culturally and ethnically, um, heterogenous, the fact that we rev along together is pretty impressive. [LAUGHS] And so I think that looking back then to the period in which the ideas on which our nation are really founded are getting worked out, not the 18th century although I have all the love possible for you know, for the 18th century and my friends who are scholars of it, but the 17th century, when they’re really hashing out what it means to live side by side with someone that you think worships the devil on terms of equal liberty, that’s really counter-intuitive. That’s not, that’s not the solution you’d come to if you actually think uncivil disagreement is a problem. But nevertheless, I think it’s the right solution, I think it’s a valuable and precious solution. And I, you know, what I want most of all is my countrymen to really, to sort of, to love themselves again and to think about, you know, what, what’s fantastic about the American system. But it does mean kind of alienating ourselves from some of our assumptions about what a civil conversation looks like.

HEFFNER: And you have to wonder if Roger Williams would see us rubbing together or, I don’t know what the metaphor would be.

BEJAN: Right.

HEFFNER: Teresa, thank you for being with me here today.

BEJAN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for another thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.