I first started following Kathy Kattenburg on Twitter after she showed kindness to me following an article about my sex abuse in the Washington Post, at a time when many of my supposedly like-minded conservatives had not. It seemed like a minor example of cross-the-aisle political civility. But it soon revealed itself to be a lesson in how elusive civility can be these days, especially online, in an age when we’re often told (or telling others) that we need more of it.
Kathy, it turned out, engaged with my husband David as well. When he posted about the Second Amendment, she accused him of supporting laws that would kill people. When he posted about sexual mores, she mocked his “archaic” beliefs. When he posted about class warfare, she posted, “This is a truly awesome pity party.” When he wrote about faith, she said he “pushed God on suffering human beings.” When he wrote about false sex abuse claims, she accused him of promoting “rape apologists.” When he posted against antisemitism, she said he needed to leave that “to people who actually know what it is.” When he expressed pro-life views, she posted about her multiple abortions.
Members of pluralistic societies must be able to listen to others’ points of view and work with them, or against them, in ways that benefit the culture. Ideally, the clash of ideas produces a better solution. But Kathy’s constant evisceration of my husband angered me, so I kept her at a digital arm’s length.
I also didn’t feel like I could judge the uncivil, because I haven’t always valued, or practiced, civility either. Though I never would’ve treated a server at a restaurant rudely, politics had different rules. I grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh, who employed the same tactics Democrats had used against Republicans for decades: mockery.
Naturally prone to acrimony, I, too, threw sharp elbows at political opponents in my work as a consultant, strategist, and ghostwriter. Political insults were warranted, expected, and part of the fun — good-natured pugilism, delivered with a wink. I wasn’t going to let civility water down my deeply held beliefs.
P.M. Forni points out the word civility “derives from the Latin civitas, which means ‘city,’ especially in the sense of civic community … the same word from which civilization comes.” It “entails an active interest in the well-being of our communities and even a concern for the health of the planet on which we live.”
Surely I could have a general concern for the planet while occasionally owning some libs.
But there was a hidden cost.
One Sunday morning after church, I read a tweet about how Donald Trump the draft dodger mocked John McCain for being a prisoner of war. Weren’t conservatives pro-military? This felt different than normal political jostling. Yet when I read the news to my fellow Christians, they laughed.
This convicted me, too. Trump didn’t emerge out of nowhere. He was the natural byproduct of decades of political contempt. My “sharp elbows” approach had contributed to a no-holds-barred discourse that was hurting our nation.
I wanted to be better, but civility held no allure, like ordering salad at a steakhouse. Though it sounded reasonable and healthy, the feeling of missing out on something more satisfying was hard to shake. And the impersonal nature of much digital discourse only reinforces that dynamic.
In March 2020, at the height of the COVID lockdowns, Kathy Kattenburg tweeted that she had problems getting groceries. I considered reaching out but didn’t want to open my family up to more hate from her. I had an elderly friend who, when asked for a favor, would reply, “Sure, if it doesn’t cost me any time, effort, or money.” Was I willing to sacrifice any of those things for someone I knew solely as an online enemy?
I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t stand the idea of someone being without food. And in the scary new pandemic world, political acrimony felt silly and insignificant. When I finally messaged her, she was as surprised as I was.
Kathy was a disabled woman living alone in the greater New York City area. She’d paid for food, but the grocery services were overwhelmed. Even if she could figure out a way to get food, she couldn’t afford to pay twice.
“I am completely alone in this apartment,” she wrote. She’d been living on rice and pancake mix for weeks. “I feel hopeless. I will never have food. Never.”
Kathy suggested a call to figure out a plan. Like most modern Americans, I’d rather get healthy teeth yanked out than talk on the phone. Messaging was one thing, but was she even a real person? She seemed more like a bot designed to harass conservatives than a person.
When the phone rang, we first remarked on our differing accents — she had a northeastern accent, and I sound like I fell off a turnip truck. But my heart softened as she described her need for toilet paper, diced tomatoes, and Aldi’s chimichangas.
Before we hung up, she admitted to disliking David but said I always had a pleasant online persona. I was surprised. She’d noticed my change of heart, and I appreciated it.
I tried to find her food. Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods would not guarantee delivery even within a few weeks. Synagogues and churches couldn’t help. Kathy continued to eat her ever-dwindling supply of pancake mix, and I called her multiple times a day.
Kathy grew despondent. “I just wish someone would knock on my door and ask if I’m OK.”
I placed multiple orders. None worked. On the fourth day, I felt powerless. “I think we should just pray about it.”
To my shock, she agreed.
“I’ve never prayed with a Jew before,” I admitted. “Is it the same, but just not in the name of Jesus?”
“Pray however you want,” she laughed.
The next day, I asked New York resident Kathryn Lopez, a Catholic writer for National Review, for advice. I was under strict orders from Kathy not to mention her name or Twitter handle to Lopez, since Kathy trolled the pro-life Lopez on Twitter too. Lopez kindly helped me hire a person to go to the store and deliver her groceries to Kathy’s door.
The shopper found most of the items on Kathy’s list — coffee, blueberries, beef. No diced tomatoes, but plenty of chimichangas.
A few hours later, Kathy called me, elated, as she sat among bags of food. That afternoon, another grocery store honored our previous order, and she had double everything.
“How can I eat 14 bananas?” she laughed.
When I told my neighbors, Pastor Ray Ortlund and his wife Jani, about this, they gave me enough money to send so many cans of diced tomatoes that Kathy’s superintendent had to carry them up to her.
Eventually, Kathy had enough food to last until delivery services stabilized.
It took a Twitter village, including a Jew, a Catholic, and my two Christian neighbors. Online, we looked like enemies. But when we engaged in real life, our pooled resources were able to overcome what seemed like an insurmountable challenge.
Kathy and I no longer tolerated one another; we enjoyed each other. She sent me photos of meals. I sent her photos of my walks since she was homebound. I sent her my favorite novels, and our conversations — about politics, faith, heartbreaks, and family — were rich and meaningful.
But we still hadn’t talked about the biggest dividing line, abortion. When I hesitantly asked her about it, I learned her daughter was born with Tay-Sachs, a rare fatal genetic disorder. Ensuing pregnancies showed that her next babies would also have the agonizing condition, so she aborted them. She later had a healthy daughter. Though I am pro-life, I recognized the pain that existed beneath what seemed to me to be Kathy’s aggressive pro-choice posts. And I understood and valued her point of view.
When doctors declared my own daughter’s pregnancy would result in the baby’s death or permanent disability, Kathy immediately called and offered to counsel us on abortion options. Now that we had a relationship, I was able to see this as her way of showing mercy. However, when I explained that we were pro-life no matter what, Kathy prayed. She was overjoyed at the arrival and subsequent survival and health of the baby.
Kathy even used her stimulus check to subscribe to David’s newsletter. She still disagrees with him — but respectfully.
So, our political discourse needs more civility. But calls to civility sound like the nagging equivalent of “Use your inside voice.” No coach delivers an inspirational locker room pep talk that includes, “Now, go out there and do the absolute minimum.”
Embracing a pluralistic society — one in which people like Kathy and David can do more than coexist peacefully — means at the very least that we stop trying to dominate each other’s political positions and strive for mutual respect and understanding. Neither Kathy nor I will budge an inch on abortion.
But there’s more on the menu.
Eventually, Kathy and I stopped merely tolerating each other online and became friends. She’s done more for me than I did for her. Turns out civility, undergirded by an actual relationship, didn’t require compromise on either of our parts.
“To be civil — to behave in a manner that takes into consideration the feelings and the comforts of others — means practicing the art of giving,” Forni writes. “It creates a bond between those involved. … Manners are the first step of the soul toward love.”
A lack of love is our real problem, for which the lack of civility is just a symptom. We know how to love; we simply withhold it from those we deem unlovable. Mysteriously, in 2021, those people all seem to belong to the other political party.
Stop aiming for the low bar of civility, which you can’t sink your teeth into like a chimichanga. Instead, aim for love, even of your political enemies. You might even realize they aren’t your enemies after all.
Nancy French is a New York Times bestselling author.