Recent days have seen concern for civility in American public discourse rise to the fore. Some call for its preservation, casting civility as a critical norm, the erosion of which would portend even greater conflict. Others suggest that the time for civility has passed, or cast it as only ever a tool for silencing dissent. Many recognize that we’ve been through these debates before.
Below, we turn to political theorist Teresa Bejan for insight. Her 2017 work Mere Civility, from which the following is adapted, draws on historical texts and contexts in order to bring sorely needed critical perspective to the perennial crises of civility that afflict modern liberal democracies. For Bejan, the advantage of consulting the past lies in opening ourselves to the ways in which it challenges our own commitments and assumptions about what it means to be “civil” today.
Modern calls for civility, whether in politics or religion, reflect concerns about the corrosive effects of uncivil disagreement on social bonds and tender consciences very similar to those in the seventeenth century. These appeals suggest that if only we could get the manner right, the very practice of disagreement itself might work to harmonize our fundamental differences, thus making it possible for us to regard one another across those differences not as enemies, but friends.
In The Harm in Hate Speech, Jeremy Waldron puts the question thus: “Is a tolerant society just a society free from…persecution, or is it a society in which people cohabit and deal with one another, in spite of their…differences, in an atmosphere of civility and respect?” For Waldron, the answer is clear. Some speech about others and their fundamental identities and commitments is simply so uncivil, so intolerant, degrading, and disrespectful that it constitutes a form of persecution against which a tolerant society can and should act. Yet in liberal democracies like the United States the question is not so simple. This is because, as a regime, liberal democracy is distinguished by its dedication to two-fold toleration: (1) of diversity in its members’ fundamental identities and commitments (especially in politics and religion) and (2) of the disagreements those differences inspire. Indeed, the self-conception of liberal societies as “tolerant” hinges on the fact that members are not compelled to confine their differences to a private sphere of individual skulls or intimate familiars, but are permitted, even encouraged, to express them freely in public and to compete for adherents.
Accordingly, in complaining about a “crisis” many commentators present civility as the essential virtue for liberal democracies that promise to protect diversity while allowing for active, often heated disagreement in the public sphere. In the United States, especially, we pride ourselves on our First Amendment freedoms not only to differ but to disagree, and our recent crisis of civility feels so critical because it brings these defining commitments into conflict. Controversies about whether to tame uncivil disagreements through legislation—whether through campaign finance reform, hate speech laws, or college speech codes—are thus usually presented as a conflict between free speech, on the one hand, and the demands of diversity and inclusion, on the other. Yet the early modern toleration debates to which we’ll turn, in which concerns about persecution of the tongue and proposals to ban it could be heard on all sides, suggest a different interpretation—namely, that underlying these controversies is a more fundamental conflict between competing conceptions of civility, understood as a virtuous standard of conversation and conduct that should govern the members of a tolerant society as such. This is clear especially in the case of campus speech codes, which attempt to articulate the standard of civility appropriate to universities as tolerant societies par excellence.
Even so, these efforts to impose and enforce civility legislatively are controversial in the United States in a way they are not in other “tolerant” liberal democracies. Waldron and others have traced America’s peculiar permissiveness toward uncivil speech—exemplified in its unwillingness to adopt the hate speech and religious insult statutes embraced elsewhere—to a peculiar “First Amendment Faith” in which religious toleration and free speech go hand in hand. Few societies protect speech as insistently as we do, and few societies expect that allowing people to insult one another, along with their most cherished commitments or beliefs, will make them more tolerant, not less. Still, even if they cannot see eye to eye on whether a tolerant society should tolerate incivility, commentators in the United States and other Western liberal democracies generally agree that uncivil speech is a threat to the tenuous balance between diversity and disagreement on which ostensibly tolerant—and civil—societies depend. Wars of words are thus both a symptom and a cause of deeper ills, a sign that once the war of swords has ended the real work of tolerance has only just begun.