Moral Conviction and Civility Can Coexist. In Fact, They Must.

As is well known by now, over the weekend, Senator John McCain died of brain cancer. Since his death, people around the world have expressed their respect for and gratitude to the man who survived more than five years of imprisonment and torture while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When given the chance to leave his fellow prisoners of war behind, he did not. Since his death, we’ve also learned more about his sense of humor and self-deprecation and the ways in which he mentored and stood up for younger senators, particularly women.

Although I did not agree with many of Senator McCain’s policy views or political choices, I will always be grateful to him for taking a moral stand against torture when too few others would. His policy decisions were more complicated but, nonetheless, he was vocal in his opposition to torture — asserting that it is both wrong and ineffective. With the moral authority of a torture survivor, he rightly called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and electric shock what they are: torture. His outspoken resistance to torture was meaningful to other torture survivors around the globe and to those of us who have had the privilege of knowing and caring for them.

Senator McCain’s influence went beyond moral courage. He showed how a strength of conviction could coincide with civility. Both, he argued, are possible with humility. Like all of us, John McCain was an imperfect human being. Perhaps what made him stand out was how he embraced that vulnerability, continued to strive for his own code of ethics, and struggled to understand that of others and bridge the gaps in between. He appeared to understand that, in order to find solutions to today’s and tomorrow’s problems, we must both identify values that matter and listen to each other with respect and empathy.

There are many reasons to be encouraged about the future. However, there is also reason to worry about the silos we have created for ourselves — too often, without enough thought or compassion. We could all do a better job creating bridges instead of walls. I hope that, in the weeks and months to come, we can thoughtfully reflect on some of the life lessons provided by people like Senator McCain and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who also died this month after a lifetime of demonstrating his own moral convictions and civility. Other notable figures have done the same, from civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to environmental crusader Rachel Carson to animal rights pioneer Tom Regan and so very many others. Though no one is perfect, they provided workable examples of how deeply held moral convictions and civility can coexist — even in the form of civil disobedience. As Senator McCain and they have shown, simultaneously holding onto moral convictions and civility is not always easy, but few worthwhile things in life are.