The events in Charlottesville raise many questions about national cohesion. If a national government is to exist, it requires political loyalty that causes neighbors to treat each other as fellow citizens. Without a legacy of social trust derived form a sense of belonging, political stability is impossible. Those on either side of the barricades in Charlottesville were not united in common sympathies and could not in any meaningful way offer their fealty to government.
In fact, these were warring parties, diverse in every sense of the word. No matter how seemingly secure the conditions in a nation may be, the nation state is still vulnerable to external antagonists and internal struggle. Discriminating against people on the basis of race means, in effect, denying equal rights. Clearly the organizers of the Charlottesville riot had this concept in mind.
Both groups claim they are revolting against tyranny. For the alt Right, it is the tyranny of political correctness and the assertion of free speech; for the alt Left it is yet again hostility directed at the Establishment, the will of the sovereign. In both instances, there is the desire to be liberated from the constraints of nature, albeit the methods are different. The Left deplores the Founders of the nation as those who sought the legitimacy of racial inferiority. The Right deplores the emergence of a new ontogeny that resists the idea of human differences.
At the moment, the demonstrators have forgotten that they are citizens in a body politic that produces a modicum of order as opposed to revolutionaries who live for disorder. Unifying under these circumstances is a mission impossible. What is not impossible, of course, is recognizing the vast majority of Americans who argue for a plague on both sides of the current debate. Americans still aim for logical consistencies, ridding themselves of extremist pretensions.
Most Americans find disagreeable behavior upsetting. Civility, the quality of character meant to smooth relations roiled by disagreements, is a mitigating factor in political exchange. For Thomas Hobbes civility is “a means of peaceable, sociable and comfortable living.” However, civility is not a trait of modern verbal warfare. In fact, warring ideological parties test the limits of toleration even though civil discourse was once organized along the premise of “difference without disagreement.”
Christian doctrine has advocated the virtue of civility. But this too has fallen into a memory hole in which religious matters are inconsistent with civil peace. As a result, civility now means conforming to contemporary liberalisms requirements, e.g. safe spaces and micro aggressions. Real diversity of opinion is a casualty of these demands. Though we may hold political opponents in low regard, the argument goes we should listen and attempt to dissuade them from their erroneous views. But how is this to be done in an increasingly intolerant culture?
If civility shrinks before the iron fist of the powerful and the violent, nothing will tame the beast of incivility.
If Charlottesville demonstrated anything, it is the ugly and violent side of passionate intensity unrestrained by civility. Both sides were angling for a fight. When asked about the longevity of the American Union, Alexis de Tocqueville responded by noting: “What maintains a great number of citizens under the same government is much less the reasoned will to live united than the instinctive and in a way involuntary accord resulting from similarity of sentiments and resemblance of opinions.”
Does that similarity exist today? Is this national unity fading? Does Charlottesville represent the foreshadowing of a new destiny – one in which disorder prevails? It appears as if the only thing intolerable is intolerance, which progressive factions deem an aversion to social justice. That claim begs the question of how disparate must sentiments become before national consensus proves to be impossible.
Clearly there aren’t any prescriptions for healing. The only imponderable is how much worse things will get. Socrates asked if virtue can be taught. He argued the only path to the rational lies in engaging with, rather than spurning the beliefs of the faithful. If only this lesson can be relearned today.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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