Stick ‘Em Up — Please

In his great futuristic novel That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis describes an effort by Britain’s greatest minds to solve social problems without reference to God. This group was known by the acronym NICE—and it was quite willing to use coercion to achieve its goals. Well, it appears that some of America’s nicest elites are taking a page out of Lewis’s notebook. Last December, 48 prominent intellectuals gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to form a commission to address what they called America’s “explosion of incivility.” But as C. S. Lewis might have warned them, it’s impossible to have civility without a shared moral consensus. According to University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin, the Pennsylvania Commission on Society, Culture, and Community will attempt to understand “the burgeoning spirit of meanness that encourages violence”—and try to figure out what to do about it. Now this is fascinating. We all want to see people with nice manners, treating each other with courtesy. The problem is, everybody seems to be ignoring what’s behind America’s rise in incivility. For 200 years Americans were ruled by something called the moral consensus—the idea that certain behaviors are appropriate and certain behaviors are inappropriate. But in the 1960s a revolution took place. Americans began thumbing their noses at these shared moral values. We were deliberately profane in order to challenge the established moral consensus. The problem is, when you take away the moral consensus—the agreed upon moral order—restraints on behavior disappear, as well. The result is that after years of being told they can be their own gods and do their own thing, Americans now get angry if anybody does his own thing in his own way. We end up with people shooting drivers who cut them off in traffic. The secular world is beginning to understand the problem, and that’s why they’re setting up committees and coming up with a lot of man-made rules, trying to micromanage society. But what they don’t understand, or don’t want to, is that incivility is never going to be solved by well-dressed, well-educated people telling us that we all ought to be nice. Civility is going to be cured only by a restoration of the moral order—and that’s why commissions like the one in Pennsylvania make me nervous. You see, when we throw out the moral order that restrains behavior—the rules that we live by voluntarily—then we are left with the need to impose the rules involuntarily, through government micromanagement. And this ultimately leads to a form of tyranny. We end up with college students being told they can’t jump if a homosexual touches them. In the workplace, we end up with rigid rules governing relations between the sexes. Even children aren’t immune: Remember that six-year-old boy who was accused of sexual harassment for kissing a little girl? This kind of micromanagement reminds me of when I was in the Marine Corps. The legendary battle commander Gen. Chesty Puller stood up in front of the Second Marine Division officers and said: “Next week is the Marine Corps ball. You will all attend—and you will enjoy it.” In the Marine Corps, you can get away with that—but not in a free society. So when we read about people getting together to try to figure out how to make the rest of us be nicer to each other, beware: As C. S. Lewis reminds us, it’s a short step from well-heeled commissioners who want us to be nice... to out-and-out tyranny.


Chuck Colson


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