“Civility” Reconsidered

A few days ago, I wrote about why online communication so often turns vile and toxic. I did not, however, provide any examples of the problem; rather, I relied on a series of posts in which others had lodged their own complaints and provided illustrative instances of Internet awfulness. Basically, I took it for granted that readers would already know what I had in mind, and, of course, that’s always a hazardous assumption to make. I was, at the time, more interested in identifying the sources of the problem, than in clearly delineating the problem.

As I’ve thought about that post over the last couple of days, I’ve found myself a bit dissatisfied with what I had written. I couldn’t quite put my finger the problem, but a couple of recent posts, by Freddie deBoer and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig respectively, have helped me think more clearly about the problem. DeBoer and Bruenig both vigorously criticized the rhetoric of civility. This initially struck me as a rather odd tact to take; after all, I’d just written myself about the lack of civility in public debate, particularly as it unfolds online. But, from a different angle, I’d already half-formulated my own critique of the concept of civility. I’ll start with that fledgling critique and then move on to the more developed concerns articulated by de Boer and Bruenig.

As I thought about my post, specifically its vagueness about the exact nature of the problem I was addressing, I wondered if I’d not inadvertently negated the possibility of vigorous, impassioned exchanges–exchanges which might verge on the uncivil, or at least seem to. I remembered, then, that I’d written about this very thing nearly three years ago in a post about civility and friendship occasioned by the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Think what you will of Hitchens, I wasn’t a great fan myself, but the man knew how to turn an acerbic phrase. In any event, I went on to make the following (slightly edited) observations about civility.

To some, the problems with our current public and political discourse stem from 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, in fact, remarkably tame.

More to the point, I would say, what we have is not so much a failure of civility as it is 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.

I closed, riffing on Aristotle, by suggesting that when people are friends they have no need of civility. In a subsequent comment on the post, I went on to clarify that claim as follows:

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.”

I’d still stand by that, although, again, much of it hangs on how civility is defined.

What’s more, it struck me that, given my own standards of what is right and admirable, I’d better leave some room for the flipping of tables and rather pointed criticisms of personal character.

Taking all of this together, then, it would seem best to say that, first, civility can be a fuzzy category, and, secondly, that civility is not the only or final word in human communication. Indeed, in some situations, demands for civility may be downright perverse.

This is where deBoer and Bruenig come in. DeBoer’s post was occasioned by a heated controversy in the academic world, one, I’m afraid, I have simply not kept up with. Bruenig’s post, cited by deBoer, appears to have been inspired by her own recent experience with online debates. Both of them remind us that calls for civility sometimes mask and perpetuate asymmetrical relations of power. To put that less clinically, calls for civility sometimes allow the corrupt and powerful to obscure their corruption and retain their power.

For instance, deBoer closes his post with the following summation: “That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

Bruenig’s thoughts are more extensive and organized with almost scholastic clarity, so it is harder to select a shorter representative sample. That said, here is one passage for consideration: “If you don’t know how to ‘talk the talk’, if you’ve grown up speaking in slang and playing the dozens and you’re not really clear on the delicacies of civility, you’re going to be ruled out of the discourse at every turn. Not for any real reason of course, but because you can’t speak the way upper class parlor sitters do.”

And here is the passage that deBoer cited in his own post:

“It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.”

I’m not sure I would’ve said that civility is merely about establishing common ground, but I think Bruenig makes a sensible point here. She forced me to think more carefully about what I am asking for when I make my pleas for civility or lament the lack of it.

Indeed, I am at some level simply asking for people to employ the sort of rhetoric with which I am most comfortable. I prefer, as she puts it, “the aesthetics of the afternoon salon.” I’d like to think, of course, that I have good reasons for this and that it is not merely a matter of self-serving preference. But, the rhetoric of civility, insofar as it presumes a neutral common ground, can be deceptive. We might think of it as the communitarian critics of the liberal democratic project think of the modern secular state’s pretensions of neutrality toward competing visions of the good life.

In fact, by assuming a posture of ostensible neutrality, the liberal democratic state already smuggles in certain substantive judgements. In cases of morality, for example, the enforcement of neutrality is equitable only on the assumption that the matter is, finally, not one of moral consequence. The deck is stacked against those who would argue otherwise, and, coming back to the point at hand, it is easy to see how calls for civility may analogously stifle the voices of those who are morally outraged. From this view then, civility is, like certain calls for tolerance, the thin gruel we’re left with when we’ve been stripped of a more robust and sustaining moral grammar.

I’m not sure, however, that I want to abandon the pursuit of all that is wrapped up with the concept of civility. Perhaps we simply need a better, richer grammar of virtuous discourse. May be we do better to speak of humane discourse, rather than civil discourse. When, for instance, we condemn the death of innocents, it may not be very humane at all to speak with civility as some might define it. To speak of humane discourse also gestures toward an acknowledgement of the fullness of our humanity. We are not, as certain modern version of the self have it, merely thinking things. We are feeling being as well, and a well-ordered soul is one which not only thinks clearly about the world, but one whose whole being responds appropriately to the world it experiences. We should, in other words, be revolted by what is revolting, we should be enraged by pervasive injustice, and so on. Calls for civility may only be a way of hamstringing legitimate human responses to the very broken world we inhabit.

But, aye, there’s the rub. As I write that, I immediately realize that if only we could all agree on what is revolting and unjust, we wouldn’t have a problem adjudicating the proper place of civility rightly understood. I find myself coming back to one of my complaints in last week’s post. Part of our problem, as I see it, is that we are too damn cocksure about the moral uprightness of our own positions. But, again, perhaps civility is the wrong antidote to prescribe. Humility is what is needed, and humility is at once a more challenging and more effective cure. Unlike bare civility which may only deal with the surface, humility goes to the root.

All in all, then, even as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve talked myself into deeper agreement with Breunig. I encourage you to read all of what she has to say (as well as her follow-up post). I’ll leave you with her own closing remarks, which suggest that we might do well to reframe our civility talk as a matter of rightly ordered love instead.

“None of this is to argue for being cruel, vulgar, intentionally insulting, etc. But there’s a peculiar tyranny of ‘civility’, and it’s to argue that the good of civility should be judged according to the particular conditions of argument, and should always be balanced against the stakes of the actual content of the debate. We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues. But we should also see that love is at times bracing, especially when it is operating in defense, and that a little rupture and agonism are sometimes necessary for an honest reconciliation.”

I take that back. I think I’ll leave you, instead, with W.H. Auden, who, as Richard Wilbur put it, “sustained the civil tongue / In a scattering time.” Here is Auden’s deceptively simple plea to which we should all frequently return: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

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UPDATE: Compare Alan Jacobs’ take on this whole “civility” thing. Basically, he thought Bruenig and deBoer went in the wrong direction with their mostly accurate assessment of the problem.