Conflict and civility

I, like many people, don’t like conflict. I like to have everything calm and peaceful, but conflict is a part of life, at times a necessary part.

Frederick Douglas (1817-1895), escaped slave, abolitionist, author, died on February 20, 1895. In a speech in 1857 he said:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
“I am not trying to abolish conflict. There is great value in healthy conflict. And the dangers of group-think are real. Conflict can inspire creative leadership. Where there are fundamental conflicts over values, they should not be ignored in a sentimental yearning for consensus. The problem in our communities today is not that we have conflict, but that we manufacture conflict and exaggerate differences to the point where it is very difficult to make meaningful change. Too often we abandon basic civility and cannot disagree without questioning the motives of our adversaries. Our standard as we debate should be similar to doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘Do no harm.’ Disagree, but don’t tear the community apart as you do. “

Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus also saw the value of conflict:

“The Pope does not, of course, intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively. The Encyclical Laborem exercens [of Pope John Paul II] moreover clearly recognized the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a ‘struggle for social justice’; Quadragesimo anno [of Pope Pius XI] had already stated that ‘if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice’.”

And so, let conflict flourish when it leads to justice, but let it be civil – and, if it is heated, let it be “generously angry,” a felicitous phrase from George Orwell’s reflection on Charles Dickens:

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer…. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

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