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.
While politicians and political theorists continue to present civility as the key to reconciling difference and disagreement in a tolerant society, a crucial question remains unanswered. What, exactly, is civility? Despite the constant handwringing over our perceived lack of it, this conversational virtue remains notoriously difficult to define. While its origins can be traced to the Latin civilitas, as the art of good citizenship or government, the evolving and overlapping valences of the term have become difficult to disentangle. Civility is akin to politeness, and yet calling someone uncivil is far worse than calling him impolite. The former is potentially “intolerable” in the way the latter is not. Yet civil has too many other antonyms—not only “rude” but also “savage” and “barbaric”; “criminal” as well as “military”; “violent” but also “spiritual” and “religious”—to permit of easy definition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scattered (and often repetitive) genealogies of civility put forward in recent scholarly accounts generally locate the origins of the concept in early modernity. For those concerned about verbal violence or “civilizing” fundamental disagreements so that wars of words do not end at dawn with guns drawn, the sense of the civil as a synonym for peaceful or nonviolent is primary. Still, most modern proponents of civility have something more in mind. Those who present it as a civic virtue or “democratic ideal” of public spirit and participation stress its neorepublican roots in the vivere civile of the Italian Renaissance. For others, civility is an essentially eighteenth-century virtue characteristic of “bourgeois” civil society and the manners of the marketplace that make coexistence and cooperation in complex commercial societies possible and productive.
In political theory, proponents of deliberative and other forms of democracy often combine both senses of civility—as public virtue and private manners—highlighted by historians and present it as a key virtue of “dialogic citizenship.” Yet these ideals of civic duty and public spirit, on the one hand, and politeness and la doux commerce, on the other, clearly exceed the conversational virtue at stake in contemporary debates. When Obama enjoined citizens to “disagree without being disagreeable,” he had something else, and something less, in mind. Definitions of civility as “the minimum degree of courtesy required in social situations,” often with negative overtones, hit nearer the mark. We might call this mere civility: a minimal conformity to norms of respectful behavior and decorum expected of all members of a tolerant society as such. Others’ incivility feels so egregious for this reason—it places them potentially beyond the pale of social life.
Noting this exclusionary element, however, a growing cadre of critics have begun to question whether civility in this sense should be considered a virtue at all. While supporters stress its civic associations, these critics take their cue from Norbert Elias and Sigmund Freud in order to highlight the dark side of civility. A synonym for civilization, as in Samuel Johnson’s definition of 1755: “freedom from barbarity; the state of being civilized,” civility would seem to be irredeemably imbricated with colonialism and empire. Against this backdrop of the displacement and oppression of the “savage” by the “civilized” in the conquest and colonization of the New, and then the known, World, appeals to civility today take on a decidedly more ominous cast. These critics view a call for “civility” not as an exhortation to virtue but a covert demand for conformity that delegitimizes dissent while reinforcing the status quo. It functions as nothing more than a rhetorical ploy meant to set up the speaker as a model of decorum and silence anyone else with the temerity to disagree. In the immortal words of Ring Lardner: “Shut up, he explained.”
One need not endorse the critics’ suspicions as to the sinister motives of their opponents to recognize that wanton civility-talk carries with it an implicit threat of exclusion. Designating certain behaviors or beliefs as “uncivil” effectively banishes them beyond the pale of conversational community. Little wonder then that contemporary debates about civility in political theory and the broader public sphere are so unsatisfying. Beyond the disaffected bloc of civility skeptics, they ping-pong endlessly between two extremes: those who present “more civility” as a panacea for all that ails our tolerant society and the critics who see it as something altogether more sinister—a civilizing discourse aimed at silencing dissent and marginalizing already marginal groups.
Its supporters might respond by pointing out that even those quickest to condemn civility are offended when their voices are drowned out by insults and interruptions from the gallery. And yet, sensitive to its exclusionary implications, these defenders are understandably hesitant to specify what they take the standard of civil behavior to be, or how much conformity will meet the minimum. For the critics, this ambiguity and imprecision simply offers further proof of the exclusionary essence of civility and its emblematic power to silence, deflect, and exclude anyone uncivil enough to question it. And so the debate ping-pongs on.
Mere Civility promises to move beyond the impasse in popular and scholarly debates about civility through an appeal to history. This approach may, at first, seem counterintuitive. And yet, just as many of the pressing problems facing modern liberal democracies recall early modern concerns about the limits of toleration in the face of evangelical sectarianism and persecution of the tongue, the concept of civility invoked in early modern attempts to refasten the social bonds severed by the Reformation represents a possible ancestor, and promising analogue, to the minimal conversational virtue at stake today.
Moreover, this early modern concept of civility has significant advantages. As the sorry state of contemporary debates demonstrates, calling for “more civility” simply as the key to peaceful and productive disagreement is not enough. Like toleration, civility can be defined in more or less suppressive or exclusionary ways, as something “mere” or something more. How one defines it, as well as how one believes it should be enforced, matters quite a lot. And one’s answers to these questions will, in turn, determine where the limits of toleration lie. While calls for civility in the seventeenth century thus display a familiar and frustrating dynamic of exclusion, early modern authors also tended to make civility’s status as a condition of inclusion explicit in a way that its modern proponents do not. It is therefore possible to reconstruct and reevaluate these seventeenth-century arguments in such a way as to illuminate this complex relationship between civility, disagreement, and the limits of toleration—and in doing so, to shed some much-needed light on the twenty-first-century crisis of civility confronting us today.
I certainly do not mean to suggest that the problems facing our tolerant society are exactly the same as those facing thinkers in the seventeenth century. Historicizing their arguments should serve, in part, to alienate us from these authors and ideas like civility and toleration that—when they are not summarily rejected—are too often treated as obvious and ours. But it can also counteract a characteristically modern myopia, our “endearing but frustrating tendency to view every development in public life as if it were happening for the first time.” Historical perspective may not solve our problems, but it can help us to see that certain favored solutions have been tried before—and to understand why they failed.