Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Mere Civility

by Jeff Polet

One particularly irritating feature in American politics is the tendency to confuse surface-level symptoms with underlying causes, a habit especially pronounced in the last eight years. One consequence is that we tend to think if we can just alter one prominent facet (or figure), then somehow the body will be healed. I recall sitting on a panel on 20 January 2009 when the college was celebrating Obama’s inauguration (for the record, the only time in my years there the college officially hosted an inaugural celebration), and listening in slack-jawed amazement as my colleagues waxed about how this was ushering in an era of peace and mutual cooperation. Not wanting to ruin other people’s celebration I kept my opinions mostly to myself, although this was difficult to do as a panelist, until one of my faculty colleagues went on and on about how Obama was going to heal all our divides, bind up all our wounds, and lead us into the promised land.

I didn’t know exactly how the Obama years would turn out, but I knew for a fact they wouldn’t turn out like that, and offered a judicious but ungracious thousand-dollar wager to my colleague that 4 years hence we could reconvene at that very spot and by no discernible measure would the country be more united or more civil than it was on January 20, 2009. Not surprisingly, he didn’t take the bet, but neither did the jolt of reality dim his misplaced enthusiasm.

But the enthusiasm was not entirely misplaced. My colleague was indulging a dream that our politics might become more civil, and decades of data draw attention to two consistent facts: Americans want our politics to be more civil, and perceive it as becoming less so. Recent polls since Biden has taken office indicate that his election did nothing to reverse the trend, and in part, the reason for that goes to what I mentioned above: elections crystallize differences, they don’t resolve them.

The root of the word “civil” is the Latin civis, meaning “citizen” and is closely related to civitas, or the word for city (just as the word “polite” is related to polis, the Greek word for city, so “civil” and “polite” mean roughly the same thing). It refers to the manner in which citizens relate to one another, the corresponding “habits of the heart” by which we attempt to live peacefully and respectfully with those with whom we have been placed (by dint of time, place, and law) into a relationship of mutual obligation and dependence. Citizens have both shared interests and competing ones, and part of civility is subordinating our competing interests (be they material or ideas or beliefs) to our shared ones, the most important of which is not tearing out one another’s throats. The possibility of violent resolution resides in every disagreement.

For this reason, we have tamed the impulse of disagreeing, and we refer to this behaviorally as “civility,” and in speech as “civil discourse.” Civil discourse can’t occur where people don’t share a language, don’t share habits of speaking, and don’t share basic rhetorical prohibitions (don’t interrupt, don’t shout, don’t call names, don’t make false accusations, etcetera) as well as positive injunctions (listen respectfully and charitably, give the other person the benefit of the doubt, recognize the other as having a legitimate point of view, engage the best version of an opposing argument rather than its weakest, and so forth).

Part of what makes our current situation so unnervingly dangerous is not simply that people are acting less civil in their habits of discourse, but the very idea of civil discourse has come under criticism. Those who view our “systems” as inherently flawed (racist, patriarchal, and so on) view “civil discourse” as a defense of the status quo, and argue that discourse has to be uncivil (and action, by extension, permitted to violence) in order to effect meaningful change. In other words, for these writers and thinkers, insisting on “civility” is simply a way of maintaining one’s power and privilege.

I find this unpersuasive for a number of reasons, but I want to draw the reader’s attention to the excellent historical and conceptual work being done by Teresa Bejan on the subject. As regards the rejection of civility, she writes:

While such complaints have been commonly voiced on both sides of the political divide, in more recent years there has been an all-out assault on civility itself. Many activists, pundits, and even members of the US Congress have declared that the time for civil disagreement is over, that the time for righteous outrage against, public shaming of, even harassment towards our political opponents has begun. And many people, it seems, have taken their advice to heart.

An important piece of this puzzle is that matters of civility and toleration come to the fore not when we disagree about minor matters, but when we disagree about major ones. Our “culture wars” result from disagreement over fundamental matters: what is the nature and source of moral authority? how does power operate? does our Constitution promote liberty for all or the oppression of some? are social institutions necessary for human flourishing or do they result only in oppression? can people in positions of authority be trusted, or are they ruling only in their own interests? is human nature fixed or can it be perfected? We could proliferate the list.

Just as in a marriage, it would be difficult for two people to live together in harmony if they disagree about matters such as whether to have children and how to raise them, whether to save for the future or to enjoy the moment, whether they should always try to be kind to one another — so too political life becomes strained not only when we disagree about fundamentals, but especially when we become aware of the fact that we disagree.

Bejan argues that the appeal of civility is its ability to lower the heat in such instances, and one way of doing this is to downplay the importance of what any of us regard as a fundamental belief. She writes:

The role of civility in regulating conversational conflict brings us to its second peculiar feature. In contrast with other conversational virtues like politeness, respect or deference, civility is distinguished by its minimal character, and occasionally negative overtones, as a low bar often grudgingly met. So, when we call for ‘more civility’ from our opponents, we have something less than deference or respect in mind.

The result is a more nuanced understanding of civility itself. “We might define civility as follows: It is the conversational virtue expected from all members of a civil society as such, meant to regulate the fundamental disagreements between them.” A consequence of this view is that being “uncivil” means that you are, properly speaking, no longer a member of the society in good standing. You have placed yourself outside the city, and thus are no longer entitled to participate in its self-deliberations.

In modern liberal democracies ― societies that aspire to be tolerant societies, as well as civil ones ― we see civility as essential because it enables us not only to differ, but also to disagree and to live together with others despite the disagreeableness of our fundamental disagreements. In such societies, mere civility is a sign that we are willing to tolerate others, no matter how much we might dislike them or their contrary commitments. It gets us in the room and talking despite our differences, and keeps us there during our disagreements about the things that matter most.

For the record, I’m not entirely persuaded by Bejan’s hard and fast distinction between “civil” and “polite,” but I think it points in a useful direction to distinguishing ways we disagree with each other, and the higher we perceive the stakes to be the more likely we will “behave badly” toward the other. In that instance, “lowering the stakes” isn’t the worst way to keep things from devolving into violence, and those who insist on turning up the heat (such as our mainstream media) are threats to the whole civil order itself. What’s required is good judgement concerning the things that are or ought to be of fundamental importance and those that are less so, where the consequences of disagreement are negligible.

One strategy for managing situations where comity has broken down is to reemphasize the importance of affection and appeal to a memory of a better and more unified time. This is what I call the Lincolnian strategy:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

But Bejan has little faith in our better angels. Using Roger Williams as a model for how civility ought to work, Bejan argues that mere civility “must thus serve as a tool of uncomfortable inclusion in a tolerant society ― a society grounded, in turn, in a radical and, frankly, unreasonable faith in the possibility of a common life and shared future with those people we now and will continue to hate.”

Bejan’s work, grounded in her belief in the persistent and ineradicable presence of hate, is a warning that we do no one any favors if we try to avoid difficult conversations, or associate only with people we know will agree with us, or spend our time on social and traditional media reinforcing our prejudices, or think that we can isolate ourselves in the company of saints and exclude all sinners. All these strategies for dealing with disagreement by isolating those who disagree with us and regarding them as irredeemably evil will only hasten the day when we pursue the most uncivil of means to rid ourselves of the fellow citizens we regard as infidels. That day of judgment will bring an end to civil life as we know it, and what is on the other side of that horizon is more likely to be a hell than a heaven.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In dealing with fundamental disagreements, should we be more like Lincoln or more like Williams? Why?
  2. How much time do you spend with people you know disagree with you on fundamental matters? Do you have civil conversations with them?
  3. Is hate ever a valid response to someone else? What kind of hate is permissible?

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