Teresa Bejan, a professor of politics at the University of Oxford and the author of “Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration,” had an article in the Washington Post shortly after former President Trump elected. It reads like a promo for her book Mere Civility, but it has a marvelous quote about Martin Luther — a “virtuoso of insult,” she calls him — and an interesting take on Roger Williams that may prove fruitful.

Also a quote saying “he that is a briar, that is, a Jew, a Turk, a pagan, an anti-Christian, today, may be (when the word of the Lord runs freely) a member of Jesus Christ tomorrow” (and therefore should be tolerated) that’s worth tracking down. It seems to build on Williams’ garden/wilderness metaphor …

Also a link to a video of a talk Bejan gave Sept. 6, 2018, at Roger Williams University, Bristol, R.I. Tolerating Intolerance: What Can Roger Williams Teach Us Today?


RWU Library’s blurb: “The first lecture of the 2018-19 Fall Semester Talking in the Library Lecture Series was held on Thursday, September 6th in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center. / Dr. Teresa Bejan, Associate Professor of Political Theory and a Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford, presented a talk titled, Tolerating Intolerance: What Can Roger Williams Teach Us Today? […]

First, the quote in the Washington Post about Martin Luther:

As our wars of words threaten to give way to swords, the historically minded may detect an uncanny echo of another, early modern crisis of civility. 500 years ago when Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, he not only launched the Protestant Reformation, he also inspired generations of conscientiously uncivil evangelical Christians and a surfeit of sectarian polemic that shattered the unity and concord of Western Christendom for good. Like Trump, Luther was a virtuoso of insult who took full advantage of new communications technologies (in this case, the printing press) to popularize his message and cut his more established opponents down to size. […]

And an aside on John Locke and the violence that accompanied the 17th-century wars of religion that may be worth pursuing:

Then as now, many observers blamed the epidemic of incivility for the violence that followed. The philosopher John Locke noted that the “disgraceful appellations” with which sectarians on all sides demonized their opponents had the same dehumanizing effect as the animal skins the Romans had used to cloak Christians before feeding them to lions. Accordingly, authorities across Europe and the Americas tried to crack down on religious controversy by banning insulting denominations like “Huguenots,” “Papists,” “Baptists” and “Puritans” in the name of social harmony.

But the part about Roger Williams —

Here, modern Americans could stand to learn a thing or two from the 17th-century founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams. Far from being a proto-multiculturalist, Williams was exiled from Massachusetts because his theological intolerance and evangelical zeal made even his fellow Puritans uncomfortable. He knew firsthand how accusations of incivility could be used to persecute, suppress and exclude. Nevertheless, in Rhode Island, he took up the banner of civility and in so doing created the most tolerant and inclusive society the world had ever seen.

The key to this apparent paradox was Williams’s commitment to what I call mere civility. As the minimal, often grudging conformity to social norms of respectful behavior needed to keep a conversation going, this civility falls far short of the reasonableness and mutual respect its proponents usually have in mind. Williams knew from experience that the “bond of civility ” necessary to hold a tolerant society together was less a matter of avoiding insult than cultivating the mental toughness to tolerate what we perceive as our opponents’ incivility, to live with them and continue to engage, even when we think them irredeemable. “As if because briars, thorns, and thistles may not be in the garden of the church,” wrote Williams, “therefore they must all be plucked up out of the wilderness. Whereas he that is a briar, that is, a Jew, a Turk, a pagan, an anti-Christian, today, may be (when the word of the Lord runs freely) a member of Jesus Christ tomorrow.” Accordingly, Rhode Island welcomed Catholic “anti-Christians,” as well as Jews, Muslims, American “pagans” and Protestants of all stripes. Williams was pretty sure they were all going to hell and told them so; still, he thought one must “go out of the world” entirely to avoid keeping company with such “idolators.”

She goes on to say, “[a]s practiced by Williams, mere civility was more often an expression of mutual contempt than mutual admiration.” I’m not 100% convinced of that, since my impression of Williams is that he was personally quite charming and maintained cordial relationships with people John Winthrop and his son, but I’ll withhold judgment till I can read her book.

There’s also this, which reflects a culture wars theme that is still with us today (in 2021):

Today, similar suspicions abound on both sides of the aisle. For a virtue aimed ostensibly at facilitating disagreement, civility more often functions to shut down dissent, as in the recent silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor. That case illustrated how accusations of incivility function to place the accused beyond the pale of reasonable or respectable debate. Indeed, the phrase “beyond the pale” — which originated in the early modern period as a reference to the geographical “Pale” (from the Latin word for “stake” or “fence”) around Dublin meant to separate the “civilized” Anglo-Protestants from the “barbarous” Irish Catholics beyond — is indicative of the problem. It suggests that Republicans were on to something during the Obama years when they accused Democrats of using claims of incivility to sidestep argument and score political points. While the dangers of political correctness cited by some Trump supporters may be overblown, there is no doubt that the president derives much of his power as an avatar for the wide swath of the electorate that continues to feel silenced and stigmatized as “deplorables” by their self-styled betters, hence beyond the progressive pale.AD

Citation. Teresa Bejan, “You don’t have to be nice to political opponents. But you do have to talk to them,” Washington Post, March 8, 2017 https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/08/you-dont-have-to-be-nice-to-political-opponents-but-you-do-have-to-talk-to-them/.

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