Justice Thomas on civic engagment and civility

Here’s a thought-provoking piece by Justice Clarence Thomas excerpted from a 2001 speech.

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‘Be Not Afraid’

by Justice Clarence Thomas

Wall Street Journal  2-16-01

Excerpted from a speech in Washington upon receiving the American Enterprise Institute’s Francis Boyer Award.

“. . .  When one observes the pitched battles that rage around persons of strong convictions, who do not accept the prevailing beliefs of others, it is no wonder that those who might otherwise wish to participate find more hospitable outlets for their civic interest.  When one of my friends began feeling the urge to get involved, his spouse glared at him and said, “Don’t even think about it. We love our life the way it is.”  And that is not an unreasonable perspective, not at all. But is reasonableness always our standard of review on this question?  I hope not.

I do believe that we are required to wade into those things that matter to our country and our culture no matter what the disincentives are, and no matter the personal cost.  There is not one of us who wants to be set upon, or obligated to do and say difficult things.  Yet there is not one of us who could in good conscience stand by and watch a loved one or a defenseless person – or a vital national principle— perish alone, undefended when our intervention could make all the difference. This may well be too dramatic an example. But nevertheless, put most simply: If we think that something is dreadfully wrong, then someone has to do something.

I do not believe that one should fight over things that don’t really matter. But what about those things that do matter?  It is not comforting to think that the natural tendency inside us to settle for the bottom, or even the middle of the stream. 

This tendency, in large part, results from an overemphasis on civility.  None of us should be uncivil in our manner as we debate issue of consequence.  No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine.  However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing “judgmental”. They curb their tongues not only in form but also in substance.  The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society.

This is why civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership.  As Gertrude Himmelfarb observed in her book, “One Nation, Two Cultures”, “to reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good-neighbor idea is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen – the “civic virtues” as they were known in antiquity and early republican thought.”

By yielding to a false form of civility, we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us.  As I have said, active citizens are sometimes subjected to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited……      To this we often respond (if not succumb) so as not to be constantly fighting, but trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental—i.e. we censor ourselves.  This is not civility. It is cowardice or well-intentioned self-deception at best.

The Founders warned us that freedom requires constant vigilance, and repeated action.   It is said that, when asked what sort of government the Founders had created, Benjamin Franklin replied that they had given us  “A republic, if you can keep it.”  Today, as in the past, we will need a brave “civic virtue”, not a timid civility, to keep our republic.  So, this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: “Be not afraid.”.

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