Civility, Politics, and Friendship

I was not exactly a student of Christopher Hitchens’ work, but I often enjoyed his style, even when I didn’t quite agree with the point he was making. Fittingly, his passing occasioned not only sadness, but also beautiful prose. When your inner circle of friends consists of upper crust members of the English speaking world’s literary establishment, you’re at least assured of being remembered eloquently. And so he was. I found the reminiscences by Peter Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Buckley particularly well penned and moving.

Christopher Buckley’s column reminded me of Hitchens’ classy obituary for William Buckley. And this in turn elicited the thought that I’d happily listen to Hitchens and Buckley go at each other indefinitely while I could hardly stomach two minutes of what we, facetiously one must hope, call a political debate.

To some, the problem with our current public and political discourse is fundamentally a lack of civility. Yet, this depends on what we might mean by civility. A friend recently suggested that the inverse is probably true. We are too civil to speak forthrightly and honestly, it is all obfuscation. In which case it is not civility that is the problem, but civility’s unseemly counterfeits — slimy flattery, ingratiation, or cowardice. In any case, compared with previous ages, our political discourse is remarkably tame.

More to the point, I would say, we have not so much a failure of civility as a failure of eloquence, made all the worse for the narcissism that frequently attends it. Few, I presume, would mind a little incivility so long as it was to the point and artfully delivered. Hitchens was the master of this sort of artfully acerbic incivility, and he deployed it to great effect. Nothing of the sort characterizes our political discourse. We are plagued instead with the shallow and inelegant shouting matches of cable news programs or that manner of speaking without saying anything mastered by politicians.

In his remembrance of William Buckley, Hitchens wrote the following:

“But on Buckley’s imperishable show, if you failed to make your best case it was your own damn fault. Once the signature Bach chords had died away, and once he’d opened with that curiously seductive intro (“I should like to begin .  .  . “), you were given every opportunity to develop and pursue your argument. And if you misspoke or said anything fatuous, it was unlikely to escape comment.”

Of what forum on contemporary television could this now be said? More likely if one failed to make their case, it was because they were shouted down by one of the other eight people on the “panel,” or by the “moderator.” And while some of have attributed the decline of public discourse to the entertainment values that drive television, the result has been anything but entertaining. It is all a great bore.

The problem it seems is that we have either a bland surface civility that trades in mere politeness and niceness at the expense of substantive debate and truth telling, or else we have an artless, narcissistic incivility that brings us no closer to substantive discussion. A little incivility by the former’s account in the service of an argument would be more than welcome if it was artful, but unfortunately we get only crass incivility masking the absence of argument and reason.

The better sort of civility depends on respect, humility, and courage.

Civility depends on a fundamental respect for the humanity and dignity of our interlocutors, independent, to some degree, of the opinions and ideas they may espouse. Perhaps the deeper issue here is the danger of constructing identity solely around political positions. We must be able to separate, to some degree, the person from the issue. If our identity has collapsed into our political persuasion in such a way that we cannot rationally argue about political issues without perceiving opposition as an attack on personal dignity, then meaningful argument becomes nearly impossible.

Humility is necessary to entertain the possibility of coming to think otherwise, and entertaining this possibility is indispensable to meaningful discourse. Dialogue is precluded by the belief that you alone are right or that you could not be wrong. If I were to believe that I see all things clearly were others see only partially and unclearly, then I need not listen at all.

Courage is perhaps the most multifaceted component of the equation. It allows for the possibility of speaking the unpopular and challenging the conventional. But while we often think of courage in terms of speaking, it is good to remember that it takes courage to listen as well. It takes courage to listen attentively to those with whom we disagree. It takes courage because most people do not want to be wrong about convictions that they hold dear, and the best way to ensure that you will never be proven wrong is to refuse to listen to those who disagree with you. This is why our “debates” very often amount to little more than sequential monologues.

On this account, the failure of our political class amounts to an inversion of the virtues necessary to civility; instead of respect, humility, and courage we more often than not have self-interest, arrogance, and cowardice.

I might also add humor to this list of needful virtues. That the most unserious of people appear to take themselves with such solemn seriousness is surely a symptom of our disordered society. In this environment, the only laughter to be heard is the scornful laughter of the cynic, or alternatively, the nervous laughter of a society realizing the joke is ultimately on them.

Perhaps all of this amounts to a validation of Aristotle’s view of friendship and politics. According to Aristotle, it was on friendship that the health of the city depended. Might we conclude that the failure of politics is a failure of friendship? Or better, that the failure of politics is symptomatic of the absence of friendship? We can at least conclude, tweaking Aristotle’s dictum, when people are friends they have no need of civility.

2 thoughts on “Civility, Politics, and Friendship

  1. Michael,

    A beautiful piece, in the thinking and the writing.

    I disagree with your friend who suggested that we’re too civil to speak forthrightly and honestly. I’ve seen too many people who feel that rudeness is a sign of honesty and forthrightness. Many residents of New York City, where I lived for twenty years, wear their rudeness as a badge of honor. Civility has nothing to do with it.

    I also disagree that a lack of civility is due to a lack of eloquence. It’s quite possible to be eloquently uncivil, as William H. Buckley habitually proved. His trademark sneer demonstrated a consistent lack of two of the qualities you cite (correctly, in my view) as requirements of genuine civility: respect and humility. (It may be that those two qualities more or less subsume the third, courage.) Genuine respect implies genuine good will, I think. Your comments on humility address this.

    I wonder if it’s possible to have a truly civil debate. Like chess, debate is by its nature aggressive and so may be inherently uncivil — people generally enter into debates not to get at the truth but to win. (Socrates was so good at winning debates they eventually killed him to shut him up.) This is another way of asking whether there’s a difference between genuine civility and civility as a posture.

    I’m also skeptical of your last suggestion, that friends have no need of civility. The frequency with which friendship falters shows all too clearly that civility is an indispensable element of all salubrious human relationships, friendship included.

    Again, thank you for a lovely reflection.


    1. Doug,

      Your question — whether there is a difference between genuine civility and civility as a posture — gets at the position I was trying to get a handle on in writing this. I think there is indeed a difference, and a climate of genuine civility may render what appears like incivility, from a certain perspective tolerable. I’m trying to capture the ethos of aggressive, or perhaps impassioned debate among friends or at least those who respect one another and are more interested in finding truth than dominating their opponents. In this setting things can get heated and some shots may be taken, but in the end it is nothing that a round of beers (or spirit of your choice) won’t assuage because of the underlying respect and/or friendship.

      Regarding my closing line, Aristotle’s claim is that when people are friends they have no need of justice. I read this along the same lines as C. S. Lewis’ observation that humility makes modesty unnecessary. One is a posture that becomes unnecessary when the true virtue is present. I realize a lot of this comes down to how we are defining terms, but what I was trying to capture is the sense that among friends I have to worry less about “civility” if civility is understood as a kind of artificial restraint. I rely instead on the bonds of friendship which allow for greater freedom of expression and even a little well placed humor or “incivility.”

      Of course, it is possible to define “incivility” in such a way that it is never, under any circumstances appropriate. I think I am including under “incivility” some more light-hearted jibes, irony, or certain kinds of sarcasm that fall short of ugly rudeness. My gut tells me we are probably on the same page, but using our terms a little differently. Perhaps I’d do better to avoid “incivility” as a descriptor of these rhetorical acts.

      Thanks as always for the thoughtful comment.

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