Acton Institute Powerblog

Beyond civility: Ginsburg, Scalia, and friendship

(Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club on in 2014. Photo credit: LevanRamishvili. Public domain.)

The first presidential debate provided an accurate and disheartening summary of our current political climate – three men shouting over each other for 90 minutes. Opposite sides of the political spectrum cannot seem to agree on basic truths or find common ground. The majority of Trump and Biden voters say that they have few or no close friends who voted for the opposite party. A thriving society requires that we are able to debate important questions and find solutions together. What should our response be to such massive disagreements?

Civility is the answer we are supposed to give. If we only had more civility, so the story goes, we would be able to have productive dialogue. But is civility enough? If civility is the only barrier between my rage and your rage, any triggering event will invariably result in conflict. Civility is mere politeness, the absence of meanness. It is certainly necessary for society to function – we cannot have dialogue without a modicum of politeness and decorum – but it is not enough. The inadequacy of civility requires that we discover some other solution to the problem of division.

One possible solution is to simply avoid controversial topics. At Thanksgiving, we are all urged to avoid religion and politics. If we all followed the advice, tables would be extremely quiet. The problem is that almost everything is political. The weather is political, as is architecture. You could escape to the woods, but that’s political, too. If we avoid all possible charged topics, we narrow and dull many topics that are relevant to our lives. Even more concerning, by avoiding controversial topics, we further the problem of not being able to dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

Perhaps the pragmatic course is to decide that it is practically impossible to reach out to someone with which we deeply disagree. When two people attempt to interact, they come to the conversation with such different experiences, backgrounds, and goals that it is tempting to regard the attempt as futile. As appealing as this course is, we must reject it as the easy and dangerous path. The result of adopting this attitude would be reducing every interaction to a struggle for power. Arthur Brooks terms this the culture of contempt. In this paradigm, there is no such thing as a good faith attempt at communication, only manipulation. Every member of society would then become either an enemy or ally, with not even the possibility of finding common ground.

Fortunately, there is a solution beyond mere civility, avoidance, or despair. This option is evinced by the friendship between Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. The justices had a friendship that defied the political spectrum. While Ginsburg is a hero of the Left for her judicial activism and Scalia is a hero of the Right for his defense of textualism, they managed to maintain a vibrant friendship for many years. But their friendship did not weaken their respective views. As Christopher Scalia explains:

The point of this story isn’t that my father or Justice Ginsburg changed their votes to please the other, or that they pulled any punches when writing differing opinions – indeed, they are both known for their strong dissents. The point is that they didn’t let those differing and deeply held convictions undermine their dear friendship.

In fact, the pair were never on the same side of a 5-4 decision, which are often the most controversial Supreme Court cases. Yet Scalia and Ginsburg were united by their love of the law and the rigor they both put into their work. They both shared a love of opera and the arts. Their friendship was not a tepid unity for unity’s sake show, but instead was based on mutual respect for each other. The goal of friendship is not that we throw out our beliefs but transcend our disagreements through genuinely caring for each other.

To be able to truly live in a fruitful society, we must move beyond civility towards friendship. Mere politeness is an easily cracked façade. In addition to merely tolerating those with whom we disagree, we ought to be compassionate towards them. Friendship can be based on shared experiences that transcend political views. Ginsburg and Scalia demonstrated that this was possible. Let’s try to follow in their footsteps.

Noah Gould

Noah is a Programs Associate at the Acton Institute where he regularly contributes to the blog and Religion and Liberty. He is a graduate of Grove City College, where he studied Economics.