To get some perspective on the current state of civility in America, we might want to look back to a time before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and before the elections of 2020 and 2016.
In fact, as author and political theorist Teresa M. Bejan told a session at NCSL Base Camp 2021 on Wednesday, we’d do well to look back to late 17th-century America, when religious sectarianism made society even more uncivil and intolerant than our own.
What we’ll see is that the partisanship or discord we’re sometimes tempted to describe as “unprecedented” is nothing new.
There are few perennials in American politics as predictable as the so-called crisis of civility.” —Teresa M. Bejan, author and political theorist
“There are few perennials in American politics as predictable as the so-called crisis of civility,” said Bejan, a professor of political theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. The session title, “Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration,” is also the title of her recent book.
“Over the past few decades, this crisis has become a permanent affliction, not only in the United States but in liberal democracies across the world,” she said.
The parallels between the religious intolerance of early America and today’s ideological polarization are sometimes striking. The impact of the polemical pamphlets and letters circulated by various religious factions in the colonies was not so different from that of today’s social media, which can be used to spread misinformation and hate speech. And England’s civil silence orders can be seen as precursors of some of today’s campus speech code controversies.
Likewise, what might be regarded as hate speech is nothing new. Martin Luther, Bejan noted, described Pope Leo X as an “antichrist,” and the pope returned in kind: Luther was “excommunicate, accursed, condemned.”
An Uncivil Time?
So what does civility mean today in democracies, like the U.S., that aspire to be not only tolerant but also open and free?
“In these tolerant societies, these liberal democracies, whenever a national conversation gets heated, the calls for conversational virtue begin,” she said. “But those calls are also quickly met by eyerolls from skeptics—and I have to include myself occasionally among the skeptics—who roll our eyes at calls for civility, because we’re generally suspicious that the self-appointed guardians of civil discourse are generally more concerned to silence their opponents than to have a meaningful debate.”
Indeed, there is widespread public suspicion of civility on all parts of the political spectrum, she said.
“We’re told that, in the face of injustice, good manners is tantamount to complicity,” she said. “Thus, civility isn’t a virtue at all but a vice, one that calls simply for deference to elites, that delegitimizes dissent and marginalizes the already marginal.”
For many, she said, it’s led to a sense that the time for civil disagreement is over, that a time of righteous outrage, public shaming and the calling out of our political opponents has begun. “As representatives, many of you will be under a lot of pressure to do just that from your constituents,” she said.
But, in all these political debates, she said, “for all the moral clarity that is boasted on all sides—all sides seem to be tremendously morally clear—a fatal fuzziness remains, namely, what exactly is civility?”
Not Easy to Define
Many, Bejan said, think of it as a conversational virtue, politeness, courtesy or respect. She argues that civility, though it might be akin to these conversational virtues, has three distinct features.
First, unlike other conversational virtues, civility is meant to govern one kind of conversation: disagreement, that is, not just how we speak but how we behave ourselves when we’re in the act of disagreeing
The mere act of disagreeing, as the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated, is offensive, Bejan noted. When we disagree with someone, we’re implicitly accusing that person of having reasoned incorrectly. “And if I disagree with you on a number of points, as those on opposite sides of the political spectrum often do, it’s tantamount to calling you a fool,” she said.
Civility, then, is necessary because of the disagreeableness of disagreeing.
Second, civility is usually distinguished by its “minimal” character. “It even occasionally has negative overtones,” she said. This is where “mere” civility comes in. “Mere civility is mostly at home in the uneasy relations between ex-spouses, bad neighbors, as well as maybe members of the other party,” she said.
“When we call for more civility from our opponents, we’re generally calling for something less than deference or respect. We’re calling for them to meet a low bar of behavior, even if only grudgingly.”
Third, civility has a particular sphere of application. “Who do we consider to be bound by the demands of mere civility, to whom does it apply?” Bejan asked. She noted that, generally, we consider the rules to apply to members of the same civil society.
Bejan’s model of mere civility is Roger Williams, the Puritan minister who founded Providence Plantations, which later became the state of Rhode Island. Williams was unafraid of controversy and was generally regarded as a nuisance by authorities in Boston and Massachusetts Bay, she said. Although relentlessly determined to convince others of their “mistaken” beliefs, he also recognized the rights of others and the essential need to coexist and engage with them.
And that’s at the heart of Bejan’s mere civility. It’s not about deference and courtesy but a willingness to engage those we disagree with in vigorous, challenging discussions.
In response to questions from session attendees about how to practice mere civility, Bejan offered a few concrete steps:
- Look for ways to bring people of opposing views together, or at least to avoid excluding others because they hold views you don’t agree with.
- Pay attention to civility on a “micro level,” that is, find ways to act as a model of civil disagreement.
- Practice courage and forgiveness by engaging with, and not dismissing as beyond reason, those you disagree with. Mere civility begins at home, with a willingness to hold one’s nose and remain present with one’s opponents, as Bejan put it, paraphrasing Williams.
The takeaways? Civility is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not a way to avoid controversial topics or the unpleasantness of disagreeing with others. Disagreement and incivility are not new problems.
And, as Bejan put it, “Problems that recur in tolerant societies are ones to be managed, not solved.”
Kevin Frazzini is a senior editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.