With rising political polarization, declining religious belief, and the COVID-accelerated retreat of many into online echo chambers, there is a widespread view that American society faces a crisis of civility. Yet civility is itself a disputed and often misunderstood concept. To help illuminate the meaning, history, and contemporary relevance of this key conversational virtue, Public Discourse Interim Managing Editor Jamie Boulding recently spoke with Teresa M. Bejan, whose work as Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford has included a significant focus on bringing historical perspectives to bear on the question of civility.
Professor Bejan’s first book, Mere Civility, examined contemporary notions of civility in light of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration among figures such as Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. She is now working on a second book, First Among Equals, which will explore the history of equality before modern egalitarianism. The interview was conducted via Zoom on April 29, 2022. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jamie Boulding: People often seem to conflate “civility” with concepts like politeness, respect, and decorum. How do you define civility, and how it is distinct from these other ideas?
Teresa Bejan: Yes, when I started working on civility that was one of the most challenging things, to try to pin down what exactly this conversational virtue is, relative to the other conversational virtues with which it’s often linked. I came to the conclusion that civility is defined by three peculiar features.
One is that civility pertains especially to disagreement, and the idea that our disagreements have to be somehow moderated or constrained so as to remain verbal as opposed to physical or violent. Civility is supposed to keep us in the realm of words and fend off the battle of swords. You see this historically in the idea that “civil” is somehow an antonym to “military” or “martial,” so I think the history of the word can help.
Secondly, civility has a distinctly minimal character you don’t see with virtues like decorum or politeness—the idea that one can be merely civil, and of course that’s where I get the title of my book, Mere Civility. This means that to be civil is to meet a low bar grudgingly, and I thought that it was really important that any adequate definition of civility capture and account for that minimal sense.
Finally, and again here I appeal to etymology, I understand civility as applying to disagreements between people who stand in a particular relation to one another; that is, as members of a civil society or civitas. I don’t think that means that civility applies only to citizens, which scholars sometimes claim, but certainly it pertains to people who live together and share a certain kind of society, and so in a way they’re also sharing a fate: they share that fate whether they like it or not.
JB: Why is civility important? What kind of things does it make possible?
TB: Part of what drew me to the topic in the first place was the sense that people talk about civility a lot, but it wasn’t at all clear to me why it mattered so much. There seemed to be a lot of pearl clutching about a loss of civility. The implication seemed to be, then, that there had been this golden age of civil discourse in the past, and as a historian of political thought I was very skeptical that that had ever been the case.
I do think that civility is important, particularly in tolerant societies that are committed to permitting and even protecting diversity with respect to members’ fundamental commitments. Of course, that’s religion first and foremost, but it’s also increasingly fundamental political or ideological disagreements. Civility is important because it works to make life in that sort of society possible, so that we don’t simply tolerate our differences but we also permit disagreements on the basis of those differences.
One possible response to difference in a tolerant society is just to say, “Zip it, keep it to yourselves!” This is the view that I call in my book “civil silence.” It’s a powerful view. But I think that tolerant societies—particularly tolerant societies on the model of liberal democracies like the United States, where there’s a close connection between freedom of conscience and freedom of speech—are committed to tolerating both diversity and disagreement. Given that, you can see that we do need some conversational virtue to fill the breach in order to keep disagreements civil.
It’s precisely when people hold different values that you need civil discourse. I strongly resist the idea that civility is possible only among people who share a fundamental or overlapping consensus, if we can use Rawlsian language. Civility is the virtue that’s needed precisely in these cases where we don’t share values.
JB: Why do you reject the claim that there used to be a golden age of civility? And what is the state of civility in American society today?
TB: My view is that the problem we face is a precedented problem. There tends to be a kind of assumption that if society is facing a problem, in order for us to take that problem really seriously, we must recognize it as an unprecedented problem. That’s why you get this sense of nostalgia for a past civil era.
But if you look historically, it’s very difficult to find. People often point to the mid-twentieth century and postwar America as a time of civil discourse. On my definition of civility, though, it’s not a particularly civil time. It might be a more polite time, a more decorous time, but certainly if you consider the longer view of American history—and my historical specialism is early modern, so I’m looking at colonial America, seventeenth century—there’s always been a critical mass of obstreperous individuals peopling the British colonies of North America. I think that uncivil disagreement and rowdy conflict and a lot of rudeness are pretty fundamental to this tolerant society.
On the other hand, we are confronting a serious uptick in the volume, both in terms of magnitude and in terms of loudness, of a particular kind of uncivil disagreement. For this, I point to key developments in communications technology, particularly social media and platforms like Twitter. There has been a change, and this change is in many ways troubling. However, I would also say that there are historical precedents for such change, like the invention of the printing press and how that fueled the Protestant Reformation and the rise of particularly uncivil forms of Christian evangelicalism.
JB: You mention social media, which many people believe to be driving incivility by creating new forms of uncivil discourse. Could you say more about the role of social media?
TB: As an academic, I try to be specific because there is a lot of hand-wringing about the woes of social media without a lot of precision. But if we have a clearer sense of what civility is, we can also be clearer on the ways in which social media platforms make it more difficult to maintain.
Firstly, I think we can point to the indeterminacy of audience with respect to social media. Civility, like all conversational virtues, involves an element of what we might call discretion. This means being able to discriminate on the basis of different audiences, to understand what’s appropriate to each audience, and to understand what speech and what kind of arguments might fall beneath the bar of civility in one context but not in another. Social media make the practice of discretion really difficult, because we aren’t able to limit our audiences or even know who our audiences are. Anonymity is probably bad for civil disagreement, but pseudonymity is fine if it means users maintaining stable identities over time.
This is compounded by what I think is the second and maybe key problem, which is that social media make possible the congregation of the like-minded in a way that physical associations and physical platforms simply don’t. Very often it’s not even individual users seeking out the like-minded, it’s the algorithm helping them to cocoon themselves in these more pleasant conclaves. There’s a reason “disagreeable” is a synonym for “unpleasant,” and conversely, there’s a reason “agreeable” is a synonym for “pleasant”! It’s nice to talk to people who won’t dispute your fundamental premises. I think that leads to the disagreeableness of disagreement feeling all the more threatening—the negative affect that comes from encountering someone who doesn’t share your views. We begin to stigmatize and indeed pathologize those who disagree with us in really unhelpful ways.
With the rise of social media, there is a sense that we don’t share a society because we encounter one another in this virtual forum, divorced from any concrete consideration of sharing physical space. COVID has increased this sense of threat on many levels—this sense that we’re able to protect ourselves, to stay home, to avoid the outside world, to avoid other people as vectors of contagion, whether biological or ideological!
JB: In addition to the rise of social media, some people point to the decline of religion as something that has negatively affected civility. Do you agree with this?
TB: It’s a complicated question. As a historian, I’m all for holding on to diversity and difference, and recognizing that religion is not simply a homogeneous thing. That being said, in the seventeenth-century debates I look at, civility emerged through helpful opposition with religion—the fundamental distinction made was between civility on the one hand and spirituality on the other.
Take someone like Roger Williams, who was the founder of Rhode Island and a radical Puritan, one of many Puritans who fled England for the colonies in the 1630s. For him, the key was to be able to distinguish between the ethical demands of true Christianity and the ethical demands of mere civility. So I am resistant to the idea that religion somehow is a component of, or a big part of, civility. I would say something different, that religion is actually a sort of constitutive exclusion with respect to civility—the idea that we can live on terms of mere civility means that we can live with those with whom we don’t share a faith.
That being said, a lot of political theorists and philosophers go wrong in trying to define civility in a way that excludes religious expression entirely, and I think that’s wrongheaded. Again, my model for a practitioner of merely civil disagreement is an evangelical Christian, Roger Williams. Civility is a virtue that is useful not just to respectable secularists, it’s a virtue that is perhaps honored most and performed best by those who are profoundly committed to their religious faith and see it as their duty to proselytize and try to convert other people. I actually think that in contemporary democracy we’d be better off if partisans comported themselves more like evangelists and less like pugilists!
JB: If civility is a virtue, can it be cultivated? Are there practical ways to achieve this?
TB: One counterintuitive element of my definition of civility is that one of its primary demands is that we tolerate others’ incivility. That’s the first thing I would say on the ethical level: to be civil, one must stop accusing other people of incivility, and do better oneself to maintain communication and remain present to one’s opponents.
My own focus is thus on what I can do as a professor and teacher. It’s my job to say what I think, to point out when the conversation seems to be unfolding in a way that works to suppress or exclude a contrary view, to normalize the voicing of disagreements, and to set an example for my students. This is difficult to do for many academics because of the insecurity and precarity of so many teachers in universities. There is a real risk of saying something wrong and losing your job. That means that people like me who are lucky enough to have won the lottery in getting a permanent job then do have a duty to put our heads above the parapet and set a good example.
JB: Are there any downsides to civility?
TB: Absolutely, and I think that any theory of civility has to foreground the downsides. I am clear that civility is always part and parcel of a civilizing discourse. It assumes that the civil person is in some way superior to the uncivil person. It’s always implicitly pushing people beyond the pale, which is another reason we’ve got to be careful about accusing others of incivility, because our own judgments of civility will be inevitably partial.
On the other hand, simply being part and parcel of a civilizing discourse is not itself disqualifying. Indeed, without civilizing discourses, civilization would not be a going concern. As a political theorist, I’d say we’ve got to be able to distinguish between better and worse forms of civilizing discourse and be forthright about what it is we’re proposing to suppress or exclude.
This is what frustrates me most around many conflicts over civility and free speech today. People are not very forthright about the fact that they’re proposing to exclude others on the basis of their speech. Indeed, they will wrap themselves in the language of inclusion: “we need to exclude uncivil people so as to be more inclusive.” But not all good things go together, many values people claim to hold at the same time (for example, equality, diversity, and inclusion) may in fact be in tension if not in outright contradiction with each other.
I’m liable to be misunderstood on this point—I’m a defender of mere civility, I believe it’s a crucial virtue, but I also think that it’s not always the appropriate virtue in many of the settings we care about. For example, more than mere civility is needed in a seminar setting. There are conversational contexts in which politeness and decorum are the right virtues. Nevertheless, mere civility remains a low but solid floor upon which we can build better and more demanding kinds of associational life.
JB: To what extent does your forthcoming book on equality relate to your work on civility?
TB: When I was writing about civility, I kept noticing that scholars assumed that civility must be in some way an egalitarian commitment or principle. But that was an assumption that had no foundation. Indeed, very often civility is asking people to conform or otherwise accommodate themselves to various hierarchies. That furthered my impression that scholars will often toss in “equality talk” where it doesn’t belong, or where it doesn’t necessarily follow from the arguments being made. From a historical perspective, I wanted to figure out when, why, and how this was happening.
On the contemporary side, I’m interested in rising conflicts over whether equality is in fact the right principle. Today, especially in progressive circles, we’re seeing a rise in “equity talk” as an alternative to equality. I’m interested to understand how what had hitherto been a nakedly hierarchical virtue—equity—is now being embraced by people who are otherwise egalitarian. Equity suggests that there are certain authoritative judges who can know or impose an “equitable” distribution and to whom others must give way.
A key point in the book that speaks to contemporary concerns about equity is that what we call “equality” was never just one principle. It has always combined an ideal of balance, an ideal of indifference (treating people as if the differences between them were immaterial), and also an ideal of parity (whereby equals deserve to be treated on a par with respect to value). If we can distinguish between these different senses of equality, we’ll see that we don’t necessarily need equity—and should hesitate to embrace it—because its proponents’ concerns are captured by these other ideals.