Making Do With Mere Civility

by Chris Berger

Think of the word politics. And then, think of a typical conversation about politics: on the LRT, in the kitchen at home, at the bar, on TV, or (gods give us strength) online. Does the word “civility” come to mind? I’d sincerely hope it does, but I also understand and sympathize if it does not.  It’s something frequently talked about, but the real practice of sharing opinions about politics seems to testify against a direct carryover from word to deed.

We are entitled to wonder what civility is and why it matters, given ongoing debates over free speech, public discourse, social justice, and the like. We have an inkling that talking about politics, social issues, science, and religion is important, and in addition that being “kind” toward one another is in some way a prerequisite (or at least a useful tool) for doing that. And yet, we demonize, mock, deride, and attack one another, and we find it difficult to carry on and talk about politics and the ideas informing it.  As with so many axes of disagreement nowadays, that over civility, toleration, and speech has devolved into simplistic polarities: laissez faire anarchy, on the one hand, and ham-fistedly policed restraint on the other.  We have either political correctness or bigotry.  Clearly, when we step back, this is inadequate for grasping the full extent of the possibilities – so where should we turn to develop some nuance in our understanding?

Enter Teresa Bejan, political theorist at the University of Oxford and author of the recently published Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, a lively and informative survey of the early modern toleration and civility debates and what they can teach us about the dilemmas with which we’re now wrestling.  Part history, part political theory, Bejan pulls off something one doesn’t often find: a non-reductionist account of the past informing a non-deterministic exploration of ideas pertinent for the present.  She believes that a genealogy of the concept of civility and an appreciation of the debates that have shaped it show that this history’s legacy is still very much present in our own struggles to figure out how to disagree with one another while simultaneously getting along in everyday social settings.  If anything, our interconnected, digitized world today is more in need of education in those themes and problems than ever before if we are to coexist peacefully.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, civility’s origin story can be located somewhere around the onset of modernity.  This coincides with the great wars of religion and social upheavals that accompanied the Reformation and the related religiously-charged quarrels between the political dynasties of Europe. In those days, if you were a Protestant, the only thing worse than a Catholic was an atheist, or vice versa; even Jews and Muslims were more tolerable than your ostensibly Christian counterparts. (To wit, a popular Protestant epithet for Catholics was “antichristians,” so named for their allegiance to the Pope, the “Anti-Christ.”)

Jumping forward into our own time, “politicians and public intellectuals across the political spectrum warn that we face a crisis of civility, a veritable war of words that distorts our public discourse, threatens our democracy, and penetrates the deepest reaches of our private lives.” The poles of our political spectrum are more opposed now than any time in recent memory, with radicals on both sides dominating public conversation and, increasingly, policy and governance. There’s no shortage of lamentation over the problem, but for all that, we seem no closer to solving it. This is where Bejan weighs in, imploring her readers to resurrect the debates over public speech and civility that were initiated by her case studies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Roger Williams all those centuries ago.

The surprising hero of the book is the aforementioned Williams, founder of Providence, Rhode Island, whose example provides the most radical model of toleration in the form of the titular “mere” civility. “Mere” in this context does not carry the belittling connotation it often does today, but rather refers to an essential minimum standard for social coexistence.

When we trace the genealogy of the ideas underpinning our modern liberal democratic norms, we think of people like Hobbes and Locke.  Williams, however, has slipped under our radar. This is because we – understandably – tend to focus on political theorists and philosophers when studying the history of political thought, and a religious evangelizer and public rabble rouser like Williams does not qualify as a political theorist in our sense of the term, much less a philosopher. But if political philosophy is to take its preliminary bearings from where the average person starts out in daily life, in the words, fears, desires, and actions of ordinary citizens, then it is worth our while to give someone like Williams a hearing.

Williams welcomed Jews, atheists, and Indigenous Americans to his colony, but not because he thought very highly of them or their ways of living. In the eyes of twenty-first century readers, the paradox of Williams is that he seems to have combined the most radical tolerance with the most caustic bigotry. Bejan argues to the contrary that there is in fact no paradox at all; the very point of radical toleration, for Williams, was to extend the reach of his aggressive evangelizing.  To spread his Protestant message so as to save as many souls as possible, he needed all types of people gathered together in peaceful coexistence, all the better to convert them and correct their damnable ways.

For Williams, “mere civility made toleration possible by allowing individuals to permit while nevertheless protesting against that which they could not approve.” It is the bare minimum required for very different people to live and interact with each other without outright killing each other. This is a stark, radical departure from Hobbesian restriction on what can be discussed in the public sphere, and the sanguine, “unabashedly elite and elitist standard” of Lockean civil charity and concord. Rather, the point of toleration is public conversation and, by implication, disagreement, with civil peace as the necessary precondition, not the goal.

Tolerance and toleration are dirty words nowadays. “Tolerance,” we think, is not enough, because it is insulting and implicitly condemnatory toward the one tolerated.  Active and positive affirmation and respect are what we crave.  Given this new orthodoxy, the example of someone like Williams may be hard to stomach. But perhaps for that very reason, his may be the one we need most right now. As Bejan notes:

Experience had taught Williams that toleration in no way required respect for others or their folly; nor did it require that one keep one’s negative judgments to oneself. It did require, however, that one continue to include and engage others in conversation, in accordance with whatever culturally contingent norms of civil worship obtained. The aim of civility was always more conversation and more speech. (p. 74)

More conversation and more speech may be precisely what is most healthy for us, not only in principle, but specifically in our peculiar times.  How genuine are we really, when we claim positive respect and affirmation for all “others”? Is it in fact reasonable to expect respect and admiration, let alone equal respect and admiration, for everyone and every belief or practice? Is such a thing even possible for a human being with opinions, emotions, a personal history, worries, aspirations, sympathies?

It should suffice to observe the behaviour of self-styled progressives in public conversation today – for all the concern over giving intentional or unintentional offense, mutual affirmation and respect have clear and firm limits in practice. Last summer in The Atlantic, David H. Freedman pointed out that we are highly selective about what is subject to respect and what isn’t. In his words:

Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.

Elizabeth Warren herself, well known for her vocally progressivist politics, weighed in recently on the controversy over right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter’s speaking engagement at the University of California, Berkeley. As I’m sure most readers will be aware, Coulter, like many speakers of a certain political persuasion, was subject to attempts to bar her from speaking at the university. Warren countered that, regardless of the wrongheadedness of someone’s ideas and positions, open discussion of such a person’s views remains the best means of competing with and defeating them. She asserted that, if students have a problem with Coulter’s opinions, it is their prerogative not to show up to the event. The answer is not, however, to deny someone like Coulter (or anyone else) a platform outright.

Such a strategy only fuels resentment and ghettoizes certain points of view and the people who hold them. This has the paradoxical effect of strengthening the resolve and heightening the profile of those who sympathize with potentially dangerous ideas that could otherwise be diffused and put to rest in an open and public setting. Take the current controversy over climate science – those who have been branded science deniers, rather than being shamed into submission, have adopted the epithet as a badge of honour, indeed crafting an identity of it, further entrenching an “us-versus-them” standard of rhetorical warfare. If history has shown us anything time and time again, it is that suppression, even to the point of extermination, never works. Ideas have to be won or defeated on the level of ideas; they cannot be dominated by brute force indefinitely.

If readers have strong opinions regarding the aforementioned example of Coulter and the broader trends it speaks to (and chances are they do), then Bejan’s book will be an invaluable resource in situating those feelings in the context of the history of ideas that helped inform those opinions. When we reach an impasse and polarization prevents us from breaking free, a return to the opposing alternatives is a good medicine for clearing one’s vision. At around 180 pages, it’s not an onerous read, and the payoff will be exponential for those who take Bejan’s invitation to think these debates through to heart. Some insights may strike some readers as disagreeable at first, and if Bejan is right – and I believe she is – that can only be a good thing.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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