1798 Political Cartoon Depicting a Fight Between Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Roger Griswold of Connecticut (Library of Congress, Public Domain).
“The problem with civility is the presumption that we were ever civil in the first place. This is why calls for genteel discourse from on high always feel like deeply nostalgic fantasies offered in bad faith. There should be nothing controversial about everyday kindness; civility as a kind of individual moral compass should remain a virtue. But civility as a type of discourse—as a high road that nobody ever actually walks—is the opposite. It is bullshit.”
–Hua Hsu, “The Civility Wars”
It seems all too fitting in our fractious age to invoke the term “wars” in an essay denouncing civility. We know well the usual laments about polarization and politicization, about the cesspool of internet comment threads and the dynamics of social media feuds, about pervasive snark and the desire to turn every cultural event and news report into a score to settle. The alleged decline of civility becomes a talking point in this tale of woe, but Hua Hsu isn’t having it.
Civility, his New Yorker piece argues, is the product of an untidy history and “meandering evolution” that now gets selectively invoked for a troubling purpose: “At a time when our ideological divides feel wild and extreme, civility has become our polite-sounding call to fall back in line.” Hsu sees the call for civility as a form of social control–“invoked as a method of discipline, as a way of sanding down the edges of a conversation“–that leads to the avoidance of “having difficult conversations” and to the preservation of “our hierarchies.” Ironically, Hsu adds his own chapter to the meandering evolution of the term by making an arbitrary distinction between individual niceness (described as “everyday kindness” by individuals) and civil discourse (described as an ahistorical fantasy and enforcer of the status quo).
Hsu is correct that there is no “golden age of civility” to which we should return. Even a cursory study of three typically hallowed examples–the Roman Republic, Athenian democracy, and the early American Republic–adds to the pervasive historical testimony of incivility from the ancient world to the present day. (Case in point: the above cartoon portrays a 1798 fight on the floor of the House of Representatives that escalated after political disagreement led Matthew Lyon to spit tobacco juice in the eye of Roger Griswold). But I find it odd to dismiss the pursuit of civility on the grounds that it never has been sufficiently practiced. Might one consider the damaging effect of incivility throughout history as a force that negates or reduces human flourishing? To be clear, civility isn’t an argument for the status quo. Contra Hsu’s piece, I don’t believe for a second that civility precludes the ability to have difficult conversations, express passionate advocacy, or call for urgent reform in the face of injustice. I would say, rather, that it allows those things to happen in a constructive manner.
Whether framed as a classical virtue in service of the common good, a religious responsibility to honor the dignity of those bearing the image of God, or an expression of Enlightenment toleration of fellow citizens, we are reminded that civility is also part of a larger conversation of what it means to be human. Or as St. Augustine once told his fifth-century congregants:
So that a human being might not be alone a system of friendship was created. Friendship begins with one’s spouse and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But considering the fact that we all have the same father (Adam) and the same mother (Eve) who will be a stranger? Every human being is neighbor to every other human being. Ask nature: is this man unknown? He’s still human. Is this woman an enemy? She’s still human. Is this man a foe? He is still a human being. Is this woman a friend? Let her remain a friend. Is this man an enemy? Let him become a friend.*
Civility is more than bland niceness or subtle social control. It is more than an atomized individual making the decision to be nice. It is the recognition that we are social beings who are irreducibly and unavoidably connected to each other, a reality that brings a responsibility for how we become, in Augustine’s terminology, a society characterized by friendship.
A society characterized by friendship may seem a quaint proposition in light of the smoldering fires of Ferguson after a divisive grand jury verdict. The means and ends to social progress, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in a thought-provoking Ferguson reflection, have been historically messy and existentially harrowing. Democracy has always been an untidy business with its capacity for contradictions, tribalism, and demagoguery. But “it is what it is” isn’t enough. American incivility is a luxury for the privileged, for those who fight the culture war on the taken-for-granted foundations of social stability, material prosperity, the rights of citizenship, and the rule of law. The luxury of incivility accomplishes its own sanding down–that of the very foundations which make it possible.
*Quote from Augustine’s sermon cited in Donald X. Burt, Friendship & Society: An Introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy, p. 118.