Last week, there was an interesting, instructive, and troubling exchange between Public Discourse’s Ryan Anderson and the New York Times’ Josh Barro. The initial topic was the definition of marriage, with Anderson defending the traditional and natural view that it is a union between a man and a woman. As is all too common for our friends on the left, Barro responded by resorting not to argument but to denunciation, claiming that some people are “unworthy of respect.”

Then it got more interesting. In response to Anderson’s call for a respectful dialogue about this issue, Barro held that “some people are deserving of incivility.” He asserted that Anderson and similar defenders of the traditional conception of marriage don’t deserve to be treated with respect because they are, in his words, “anti-gay.” Indeed, Barro defended his position as common sense: surely anyone would agree that a segregationist—his example—does not deserve to be treated with respect. What we have, then, according to Barro, is a disagreement not over whether everyone deserves respect, but over where to draw the line between who does and who does not deserve respect.

Barro’s position deserves careful examination because it represents what many liberals secretly think, even though they will not say it as openly as Barro was willing to do.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

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Before examining Barro’s position, however, it is fair to make clear what he is and is not saying. By denying that some people deserve respect, he is not saying that they have no rights at all. He is saying, rather, that they have no claim to be treated with civility, but instead deserve to be spoken to and about with whatever denunciatory language their betters think fit to employ.

We can begin to discern the untenability of Barros’s position by asking how he would draw the line between those who do and those who do not deserve respect. He would probably begin with a list of examples of those who don’t deserve respect or civility. His exchange with Anderson suggested such a response: the segregationist and the defender of slavery, he said, do not deserve respect, nor, presumably, the Nazi.

The problem with such a response is that it is not really an answer to the question of how to draw the line. Examples do not constitute a definition. Is Barro willing to say that the opponents of same-sex marriage deserve to be classed with segregationists? Perhaps. But then are the opponents of polygamy also to be put in such a category, or the opponents of lowering the age of consent so that adults can marry minor children? Probably not, on Barro’s view. He therefore needs not just examples but also a definition in order to draw the line that he believes must exist somewhere.

This gets us to the deeper problem: it will turn out to be impossible for Barro to draw such a line convincingly. Any principle we can imagine him bringing forward would only beg the question. He might contend that anyone who denies equality should not be treated with respect, but this just raises a question about what are the just demands of equality. Or he might say that those who deny human rights don’t deserve civility. Again, this settles nothing when we are trying to figure out what is the proper conception of human rights. He might hold that anyone who stands in the way of progress does not deserve respect, but this would merely compel us to ask what changes in law and society actually constitute improvement and so deserve to be called progress.

No matter how long we tried, our effort to find a principle here would get us no further than this conclusion: people who disagree with Josh Barro and his friends don’t deserve to be treated with respect. This is obviously a non-starter.

The untenability of Barro’s claim also becomes clear if we think through its implications in relation to conduct as well as opinion. Barro wants to say that people who hold, express, and work for views he regards as wildly wrong do not deserve to be treated with respect or civility. It would seem reasonable to assume, then, that he also thinks outright wrongdoers do not deserve to be so treated. Is he really prepared to stand by this view?

It is ordinary practice for criminal defendants—even those charged with heinous crimes—to be accorded a certain civility. During a trial, the prosecutor and the judge will refer to such a person as “the defendant” or “the accused.” When not using such expressions they will usually refer to the person being tried as “sir” or “ma’am” or use such commonly courteous expressions as “Mr.” or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” Such respect for the person is continued, moreover, even after guilt has been established and a conviction secured. Does Barro really think it would be appropriate for government officials conducting such proceedings to dispense with such civilities, perhaps referring to criminals as “thugs,” “scum,” or “garbage”? If not, then can he explain why those who hold views he rejects deserve less respect?

There is also something incoherent in Barro’s insistence on the suitability of denunciation. If the people he disagrees with are so obviously wrong, then presumably it could not be very hard to come up with an argument showing the error of their thinking. Why not do that, then? On the other hand, if they are wrong but their error is not so obvious, then their mistake cannot be culpable. Such innocently mistaken people certainly would not deserve denunciation but respectful refutation.

Making the World Worse

Barro’s position is not only untenable in theory but also pernicious in practice. At one point in their exchange, Barro accuses Anderson of “making the world worse” by the opinions he holds. Barro understandably wants the world to be better. He might, then, cast his mind back over the history of the United States and see that the greatest figures who made it better almost always treated their opponents with respect, even when they believed them to be very much in the wrong.

The American colonists thought that the taxes to which they were subjected by Parliament were contrary to British law and even to natural principles of justice. Nevertheless, most of their addresses to the government of Great Britain were couched in respectful language. Although the Declaration of Independence uses some tough language against the king, even it is much more an argument than a polemic—and it was written after the colonists were actually at war with the king.

The Federalist defenders of the proposed Constitution thought its ratification was necessary to the survival of the Union and the safety of all Americans. They nevertheless resorted primarily to argument, not vilification, as a way of dealing with their Anti-Federalist opponents. By taking seriously the Anti-Federalists’ call for a Bill of Rights, the Federalists showed that they wanted not only to defeat them but also to win their trust and cement the bonds of civic friendship.

As compelling as these examples are, they do not perhaps invoke the kind of moral drama, the clear clash between right and wrong, to which Barro appeals by comparing opposition to same-sex marriage to an issue like segregation. Does the racist deserve respect, Barro will ask? In reply, we may observe that those Americans who have done the most against racism have done so by treating even racists with respect.

Abraham Lincoln consistently denounced slavery as an institution without denouncing southerners for being slaveholders. On the contrary, he admonished his fellow northerners that they would be no better had they been raised in a slave-holding society. Lincoln reasoned with the South about the immorality of slavery. And when some southerners sought to dismember the Union, he reasoned with them about the illegality, injustice, and imprudence of secession, appealing to the “better angels” of their nature. Of course, his efforts at persuasion failed, and war came—a war that Lincoln was determined to wage with full force in pursuit of a just victory. Even in the midst of civil war, however, and even with the war won, he did not indulge a desire to denounce or vilify his opponents. The same was true, of course, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the most effective leaders of the civil rights movement.

Civility is due not to a person’s opinions, but to the person himself. Such civility is right and just because, while we may be very convinced that our opponent is wrong, our opponent is still a person with dignity. The just response to error is, as Socrates pointed out long ago, not mockery but argument. Civility is, moreover, prudent and good because if we reject it, if we indulge the desire to denounce, we destroy the civic friendship that is necessary to preserve a free and diverse society.