The holiday just past demonstrates the limits of a political philosophy founded on doubt. Martin Luther King Jr. did not oppose segregation because its supporters were too doctrinaire. He opposed segregation because it was an insult to the nature of human beings. He did not seek to lessen passions by exposing ambiguity. He sought to persuade Americans of a superior moral belief -- to convert them to the ideals of their own founding. The intensity of his convictions led him to be a firebrand, a leader, a martyr. Yet he argued for peaceful, civil methods because even oppressors had dignity and value, and thus the hope of redemption.
Moral conviction is not a synonym for arrogance. Both of the paths to civility call for humility. A civility based on doubt demands an appreciation for our own ignorance. A civility grounded in human dignity requires us to bow before a principle greater than ourselves -- the belief that others count and matter as much as ourselves. The latter is more difficult to cultivate, but more lasting and important.
So what is the source of America's current civility problem? Is there too much immodest conviction? Or is there too little regard for the value and dignity of others?
There is no reason that both answers can't be "yes." But the second challenge is primary. We need a robust civility that allows for deep and honest disagreements instead of explaining those differences away. In the long run, this is only achievable if Americans believe that their fellow citizens deserve respect, even when they hold absurd political beliefs.
It is not a coincidence that the first draft of the American ideal begins with a statement of anthropology, asserted without epistemological modesty. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." It is this belief -- not the absence of belief -- that provides the most compelling reason for civility. We are not enemies, but friends.